Police in Florida arrested a prodigious but picky cat burglar Monday, accused of robbing more than $10 million worth of fine antique silver from celebrity homes and historic mansions across the South.
For months, precious pieces of silver -- a stein that once belonged to King George II, a silverware set smithed by Paul Revere -- have disappeared from stately homes across seven states, while other valuables were left untouched. In nearly every instance there were virtually no clues, police said, and the thief would often cover his tracks, even replacing panes of glass he removed from windows.
The burglar was adept at sneaking past "sleeping dogs" and disabling alarm systems, according to the Nassau County Sheriff's Office in Florida.
"When all alarms were disabled, he would remove entire drawers full of silver items and take them outside to test them with his own silver test kit; plate silver would be thrown away at the scene and he would leave with only the finest and most expensive items," Sheriff Bill Leeper said in a statement.
Dozens of robberies, starting in February 2011 and all fitting a similar description, occurred across the South from Tennessee to Florida, and local cops were helpless to connect the dots, authorities said.
That was until Lonnie Mason, a retired New Jersey police detective, realized his former nemesis was up to his old tricks.
Mason had a hunch that a "genius thief," Blane Nordahl, 51, whom the ex-cop first crossed paths with in 1983 and had helped put away five times, wouldn't be able to stay away from the game for too long.
"I started Googling silver thefts," Mason told ABCNews.com. "And as soon as I saw a pattern, I knew it was Blane. I called the police in Atlanta and told them, 'Let me explain how this is all going to go down.'"
Mason is a Nordahl expert. And Nordahl is an expert thief. Nicknamed the "The Silver Thief" or the "Thief to the Stars," the ex-con, last paroled in 2010, has been tied to burglaries at the homes of socialite Ivana Trump and singer Billy Joel.
"It's his addiction," Mason said. "He doesn't do drugs or drink alcohol. But needs to steal. He feeds off it. He needs to prove he's better than the police."
Sticking to silver has its advantages, Mason said. It means the thief rarely has to venture upstairs into a home he's robbing. And it means that victims often don't realize they've been robbed "until Thanksgiving or Christmas rolls around and they go to take out their good silverware."
|"He doesn't do drugs or drink alcohol. But needs to steal. He feeds off it. He needs to prove he's better than the police."|
Furthermore, there's a large market for the antiques and stolen silver isn't tracked nearly as routinely as fine art.
Nordahl typically cased expensive homes, but would also look for leads in architecture magazines and those featuring the homes of the rich and famous, Mason said.
Mason helped coordinate several police departments, pointing them to similarities in the way the suspect had cut holes in windows -- always starting from the same corner.
Sheriff's deputies in Hilliard, Fla., arrested Nordahl on Monday and charged him with felony burglary and conspiracy. After a short foot pursuit, officers cuffed Nordahl and placed a call to Mason.
"They told him, 'Blane, there's someone on the phone.' When they told him it was Lonnie Mason, he just buried his head in his knees," Mason said.
Nordahl has not yet appeared in court or retained an attorney, but is expected to be extradited first to Atlanta. Authorities in Tennessee and South Carolina also plan to press charges.
"I know Blane," Mason said. "He can't help himself. In the past I tried helping him get a job. The guy is brilliant and could do anything he chose. But he chose being a thief."