The Pickpocket’s Tale: New York Pick Pocket Recalls Old School Crime[Jail Interview]

20PICKPOCKET-sub-master675Wilfred Rose, 58, spent a career studying the pants pockets of New Yorkers, always on the lookout for “a nice stiff wallet” full of cash, or better yet, the fainter outline of a dozen folded bills.

When he describes sizing up a promising mark, his eyes stop blinking and he leans forward. “When they are wearing a suit, or nice pants, you can visualize it,” said Mr. Rose, whom detectives describe as one of the city’s craftiest pickpockets. “You know when it’s there.”

For years, Mr. Rose had his run of New York, largely evading detection and arrest. His tales of larceny cover four decades.

There was the time, nearly 20 years ago when the heavyweight bout at Madison Square Garden devolved into a riot, brawls erupting in the ring and the stands. Amid the chaos, Mr. Rose recalled, he smelled opportunity. He seized on a target, a Japanese tourist whose pocket bore the outline of a wad of bills, and struck quickly, disappearing into the crowd with Japanese currency worth several thousand dollars.

Then there are times when he stole with kindness. Mr. Rose recounted an episode at an airport when he spotted a man at the baggage carousel, the outline of a fat envelope visible. Mr. Rose offered a hand with the man’s luggage, the victim never noticing the envelope being lifted from his pocket. Inside, Mr. Rose said, were $5,000 and a diamond ring.

Then there was the time, he claims, that he decided to show off after spotting an off-duty sergeant, a renowned chaser of pickpockets, on his way to Yankee Stadium. Mr. Rose sidled up to him in the crowded train, plucked a roll of $300 from the man’s pocket and slipped $30 or $35 of his own money, in smaller denominations, into the sergeant’s pants. When the sergeant recognized Mr. Rose one stop later, he patted his pocket, reassured to feel money there. (In an interview, the sergeant, now retired, denied ever being bested by Mr. Rose.)

But that was a long time ago. These are lean years for pickpockets. People carry more credit cards and less cash; men wear suits less, and tightfitting pants more. The young thieves of today have turned to high-tech methods, like skimming A.T.M.s.

And pickpockets like Mr. Rose have been left behind. His last larceny, in March, on an uptown No. 2 train, ended with his arrest and his sentencing this month to one and one-half to three years in state prison, where Mr. Rose — who has done short stints in jail — has never done time.


Mr. Rose was arrested in March at an Upper West Side subway station and was sentenced this month to one and one-half to three years in state prison.

“We’re disappearing,” he said wistfully in a recent interview at the Manhattan Detention Complex, where he told his life story. “In a few years, there won’t be any of us left.”

Mr. Rose is one of about 50 pickpockets whose mug shots are on flash cards studied by plainclothes subway officers. They call the thieves the “Nifty 50.”

“I would say he’s one of the best,” said Nelson Dones, a retired detective who put together the training cards.

Some of the thieves have a shtick. There is Francisco Hita, who when caught touching someone’s wallet, pretends to be deaf, the police say, responding with gesticulations of incomprehension. There is an older man who pretends to be stricken by palsy while on a bus, and then uses a behind-the-back maneuver to infiltrate the pocket of the passenger next to him.

There are flashy dressers, like the 5-foot-3 Duval Simmons, whose reputation is so well known among the police that he says he sometimes sits on his hands while riding the subway, so he cannot be accused of stealing. Mr. Simmons, an occasional partner of Mr. Rose’s, said he honed his skills on a jacket that hung in his closet, tying bells to it to measure how heavy his hand was.

Mr. Rose’s notoriety stems from how infrequently he has been arrested, and how, at least in the last 15 years, he has never been caught in the act by plainclothes officers.

While some details of Mr. Rose’s story are impossible to verify independently, he was well known to the police and had a reputation for being careful. “He’s been plaguing New York for decades,” said Mr. Dones, who spent 14 years chasing pickpockets. “We’ve seen him so many times over the years, yet we’ve never been able to catch him” — at least, in the act of stealing. Veteran detectives expressed surprise at Mr. Rose’s recent arrest, both for its rarity and because he was caught working with a partner — he normally worked alone.

“I’m too old for this,” Mr. Rose said during one of several jailhouse interviews. “I used to think of it as a game. But jail makes you think of it as stealing.”

And the game has changed. Pickpockets now are not interested only in the cash, of which there is less; increasingly, they sell or share credit-card information with identity-theft rings.

Mr. Rose is dismissive of the younger generation of street criminals and refused to train apprentice pickpockets. “Young people, they aren’t interested in this,” Mr. Rose said. “It takes too much patience.”

He is a slight man but has long, insistent fingers, and eyes set wide apart. Pickpockets call each other “shotplayers.” Asked to reflect on his career, Mr. Rose said, “Shotplayer — I don’t even want to hear that word anymore.”

After his release, he vowed, he will reform. “I’m done with this life,” he said. “I’m going to buy a bike and become a messenger. That’s what I’m going to do. I want a job.”

Full Interview Here

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