Silver And Celebs: Twin Draws For An Area Thief Blane David Nordahl Combined An Appraiser's Eye With A Burglar's Stealth, Authorities Say.

Posted: November 22, 1998

Blane David Nordahl has spent much of the last 15 years in jail or in other people's houses.

In that time, police say, he has slipped into hundreds of houses of the wealthy, from the coast of Florida to the Main Line, from Haddonfield to Chicago's North Shore.

He has taken millions of dollars in silver: tea sets and trays, salt and pepper shakers, and heirlooms worth thousands - but priceless in sentiment.

So good was he in his line of work that police up and down the East Coast came to admire his skills.

``I'll tell you, I have a lot of respect for his ability as a burglar,'' said Lonnie Mason, a New Jersey detective very familiar with Nordahl. ``He made a business out of it.''

Nordahl's victims include Ivana Trump in Greenwich, Conn., and sportscaster Curt Gowdy in Palm Beach. A prosecutor dubbed him ``burglar to the stars.''

He used a chemical kit to test silver. He learned to ditch his sneakers and tools after every heist. He scraped putty from windows with such care that electronic sensor alarms slept as soundly as the homeowners they were bought to protect.

Police say he never left a fingerprint.

But why did he become a thief?

Hard to answer, says his father, a New Mexico artist, recalling the gentle science whiz Blane Nordahl was as a boy: ``He could have been anything he wanted to be.''

But Nordahl had a weak spot: He couldn't quit stealing.

So last summer, when he had the choice of cooperating with the feds and walking away a free man, or stealing more silver and risking more prison, the decision was easy.

Almost immediately after he left a federal prison on June 30, police said, Nordahl began to steal again.

Tea sets began disappearing on the Main Line.

Philadelphia police got reports of break-ins in Chestnut Hill that bore his trademarks. In the Baltimore area silver was stolen from more than a dozen houses.

Early last Tuesday morning, Nordahl drove to Baltimore County, left his 1991 red Cadillac DeVille on a cul-de-sac and disappeared for a few hours. When he returned just before dawn, burglary tools in hand, he was surrounded by a contingent of police who had been watching his moves for weeks.

Now Nordahl, 36, sits in a Maryland jail, charged with three burglaries there, while investigators here and in Baltimore solidify cases against him.

This time authorities aren't likely to give him a break.

* Nordahl, police say, rarely strayed from a routine he developed over the years. He would rent a motel room, buy his tools at a Home Depot and park his car far from the target.

He was meticulous.

He dressed in black and carried his tools in a duffel bag. He would begin his crime by quietly chiseling away for more than an hour at the putty around window panes. Next, he would remove the wood moldings - stacking them neatly nearby - then stick duct tape on the glass and yank it out, giving him an opening just big enough to crawl in.

Alarms usually didn't go off because Nordahl didn't open the windows or doors. At some houses, though, he disabled alarms by climbing up to cut the wires. In one Baltimore house, he did not touch a china cabinet brimming with sterling because a motion sensor peered down on it.

``It gets me,'' said Greg LeVanis, who lost more than $100,000 in silver from his Baltimore manse. ``I have dogs and an alarm, and he gets through both.''

Nordahl stands 5-foot-4 and stays in shape. Radnor Township police believe he recently squeezed into a house through a doggie door.

Mostly he worked alone, usually moving the goods quickly through fences in New York, whom police have yet to identify. Some authorities believe he has a stash of money hidden. But his lifestyle doesn't reflect it.

``He lives a very low-key lifestyle,'' Lower Merion Police Sgt. Mark Keenan said. ``He never goes out.''

Nordahl eshews alcohol, drugs, even caffeine, law enforcement officials say. He never was armed or violent, they say.

Despite his care, though, he used credit cards in his own name to pay for motels and rental cars. That helped police build cases against him.

Though he could distinguish good silver by looking at it, he sometimes carried a chemical test kit. He would borrow something from the house to carry out his loot - a linen tablecloth or a drawer from a breakfront - then leave it outside.

Though residents often were home while Nordahl worked, in only a few cases was he discovered in the act and forced to flee.

After a sneaker imprint on a countertop led to an arrest and a three-year jail term in 1992, he took to throwing away his shoes, his tools and every stitch of clothing he wore after a night of burglaries.

As careful as he was, though, he kept pushing his luck. He was caught often - never with stolen items, but with enough circumstantial evidence to force him to confess and make deals with prosecutors. This year, before he was released in June after 20 months in prison, he admitted to more than 100 burglaries in a plea agreement with federal officials.

``You're dealing with a guy who's an addict,'' said one person familiar with Nordahl's history. ``He didn't do drugs. He didn't drink. He stole.''

* ``He's never really given me an explanation of why,'' said his father, David Nordahl, 57, on the phone from Santa Fe.

David Nordahl is a painter of some renown, specializing in Native American images. His work has been collected by Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg.

``It just breaks your heart. When your children are growing up, you have all kinds of concerns. You want them to be healthy, happy, popular,'' the older Nordahl said. ``But you never think what would happen if they didn't turn out to be proper citizens.''

Blane Nordahl was born in 1962 in Albert Lea, Minn. He was the first of two children - a boy and a girl - of David Nordahl and his wife, Sharon. The family moved to Minneapolis, where Blane started school, then to a farm in Sparta, Wis. By 1970, the Nordahls had divorced.

Blane dropped out of school, finding work in construction. At 16, he was arrested for stealing from a store. He made restitution after his father dealt with authorities.

The family then moved to Santa Fe. Blane found work, earned his GED, and in 1980, at age 18, joined the Navy. He was named sailor of the month and received several commendations, his father said.

``At one point he was thinking of becoming a Navy SEAL,'' David Nordahl said.

Instead his son became a burglar.

* Blane Nordahl's career in burglary started in 1983 in the wealthy towns of Monmouth County, N.J., when he was posted at a nearby naval weapons station.

He was arrested on June 15, 1983, in Rumson. The next year, Shrewsbury police arrested him for a Halloween burglary - perhaps the only time he was discovered in the act. Nordahl, though, was able to escape.

``He hit us a number of times,'' Shrewsbury police Capt. James Wilson said. ``He's the reason a wealthy older lady living here doesn't have any silver. She replaced it three times and he took it three times.''

In 1984, police say, he went AWOL and was arrested for desertion. (The result of that charge was not available last week.)

The burglaries continued: Monmouth County; Burlington County; Haddonfield, N.J.; Montgomery County, Pa.; Greenwich, Conn.; the Hamptons on Long Island.

The jail door became his turnstile.

Nonviolent offenders such as Nordahl - a model prisoner - are considered good parole candidates, said Edward F. Borden Jr., a former Camden County prosecutor. ``Ask the people whose houses he's broken into if what they experienced wasn't violent,'' Borden said.

Nordahl got a five-year sentence for the Monmouth burglaries, but was paroled after two. He got five more years for Burlington County burglaries - but was freed a little more than two years later, on July 2, 1991.

Three weeks later, burglaries began in Gladwyne and Haverford.

Evidence pointed to Nordahl; in September a Lower Merion officer spotted him walking toward the back of a house in Haverford. Nordahl fled, tossing a black bag aside.

In the bag were screwdrivers, a pry bar, pliers, wire cutters and a box cutter. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but before Lower Merion could get him, he was nabbed in Bellmawr on prowling and other charges. He remained jailed in New Jersey until December 1991.

He moved from a New Jersey jail to a Montgomery County prison, posting bail on Jan. 13, 1992. The next month he was arrested in Collingswood and eventually confessed to 40 burglaries and three attempts in New Jersey, including 13 in Haddonfield.

More jail time. Free again in July 1995, Nordahl hit Greenwich and the Hamptons, then branched out to the Midwest, sneaking into tony houses along Chicago's North Shore that fall.

Because of the interstate activity, the FBI got involved, eventually tracing Nordahl through car rental receipts to Wilton, Wis., where he was buying a house. Local authorities began to tail him, and in October 1996, officers arrested him outside a Wal-Mart in Sparta, Wis., where he had spent part of his youth.

With outstanding warrants from Connecticut, federal authorities took over the case to expedite his return East, where Nordahl pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport stolen goods. That enabled jurisdictions up and down the East Coast to wipe more than 100 unsolved burglary cases off the books.

As part of the agreement, sources say, Nordahl was to give federal authorities information on fencing operations. On June 30, after 20 months in prison, he was released on bail awaiting a sentence while federal prosecutors waited to see what tips he would provide. He moved in with a girlfriend in a $530-a-month apartment in Bellmawr.

Within weeks, homeowners in Villanova, Bryn Mawr and Chestnut Hill reported thefts of silver.

Last month, Lower Merion police formed a task force with other investigators to try to catch Nordahl in the act. They put surveillance teams on him. On Monday night, they notified Maryland authorities that Nordahl was heading south on Interstate 95. Up to six unmarked police cars followed, backing off when he parked at the cul-de-sac.

When he returned to his car at 5 a.m., he pulled a knapsack off his back and dropped it into the trunk of the red Cadillac. It contained three chisels, wire cutters, nail pullers, a flashlight and duct tape.

More than 30 police officers were waiting.

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