Citizen crime-fighters in Lowry Hill

How one alert couple ignored fears and helped catch a serial burglar

On a leisurely Sunday afternoon in late September, Bob and Sue Greenberg were enjoying time with their daughter Kate on their Lowry Hill three-season porch when Sue noticed a suspicious man at their neighbor’s house across the street.

"Sue watched him at their front door, then he cut between the two houses," Bob Greenberg said.

This raised concern, Sue Greenberg said, because there weren’t any doors between the two houses, and the man was carrying a Marshall Field’s bag.

Sue Greenberg — a neighborhood contact for the 5th Precinct’s CCP/Safe crime-prevention unit — said she was aware of the community crime alert warning of 19 home burglaries in the area since mid-August.

"Some of our neighbors had gotten hit really bad," Sue Greenberg said.

"He did fit the description that the crime alert sent out," Bob Greenberg said.

So Bob Greenberg went over to the neighbor’s house to make sure nothing sinister was in the works. In hindsight, Sue said confronting a suspicious person might not have been the best idea, but Bob said he kept his distance to avoid a physical confrontation; he spoke authoritatively to the perpetrator from the sidewalk.

Said Bob Greenberg, "When I walked over, the guy had his hands up on the first-story window. So I asked, ‘What are you doing? Can I help you?’"

He said he then tested the man, asking him for the homeowner’s name — which the man could not produce.

"I then came back to the house, and quickly called 911 with a description and my cell phone number," Bob Greenberg said. "I grabbed my cell phone and followed him down the street."

Bob Greenberg said the whole ordeal happened so fast, it’s hard to recall the way he felt. He said he simply was determined to make sure the man was caught.

He said that although he didn’t fear the suspect, he was safety-conscious and stayed far behind the man as he followed him to the steps of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis Church, 900 Mt. Curve Ave. There, police promptly apprehended the suspect.

"The police response was fabulous — they were there in less than five minutes," said Bob Greenberg, who identified the perpetrator from a distance.

He said police told him that a cutting utensil had been found on the suspect, Joseph Wayne Johnson.

Minneapolis police Sgt. Barry Nelson said that Greenberg’s call was essential in the suspect’s apprehension. "The suspect left the area, but we caught up with him and they positively identified him," he said.

Nelson said the Greenbergs’ action upon witnessing the suspicious behavior highlights the good that comes from the community members working with the police.

He said Johnson is being held at Hennepin County jail and has been charged with second-degree burglary and possession of burglary tools. Nelson said the police are investigating Johnson for five more burglaries in the area.

He asked that Johnson’s mug shot not be printed, since Johnson is still a suspect in other area burglaries. (The Southwest Journal has agreed not to print the mug shot.) Nelson also stressed that the community should not lend too much weight to the apprehension of one suspect.

"But just because this guy was caught, doesn’t mean people should put their guard down," said Nelson," There are always more burglars around."

CCP/Safe officer Scott Shepard said his unit has also tried to steer people away from the mentality that because a burglar has been caught, all is well.

"Lo and behold, about a day or so after the suspect’s apprehension, there were more reports (of similar criminal activity)," he said.

Shepard said Johnson’s apprehension proves the effectiveness of the crime-alert system, which included his CCP/Safe team flyering the area with over 1,200 notices. He said the incident also shows the importance of community communication with law enforcement agencies.

"It definitely made a big impact on awareness," Shepard said. "A lot of people don’t know what to do."

He said that some constituents were not aware that they should call 911 when witnessing criminal behavior. Shepard said they don’t always view suspicious activity as an emergency and tend to call him the next day with a report.

According to city policy, 911 is no longer for emergencies only, but for a wide range of suspicious activity.

Shepard said because he’s had regular communication with the Greenbergs and other neighborhood contacts, the chances of foiling a burglar’s plans increased.

"Call it luck, and a little bit of education," Shepard said, since the burglar chose to hit a house near a police contact.

He said in the other areas where the burglaries happened, there wasn’t a block club or a contact with the 5th Precinct.

Bob Greenberg said his actions were just a matter of trying to maintain the community’s livability. "If you don’t react to (criminal behavior) and deal with it, you’re saying it’s OK to keep it up," he said.

Sue Greenberg said she and her husband lived in their Lowry Hill home for 11 years and have always been aware that living in the city can mean more criminal activity. But Bob Greenberg said that reality makes being a responsive citizen that much more important.

If people begin to look the other way, he said, area livability would go downhill. "Unless you maintain livability, people aren’t going to stay in an area and raise their kids."