Thursday, April 24, 2014
By DARLA PICKETT, Staff Writer
Editor's note: This article was originally published June 8, 2005.
Harvey Chesley, then-director of Pine Tree Camp, shows a window that was carefully forced open, but not broken, to get at food in one of the camp's buildings in 2005.
Staff file photo by Jim Evans
Harvey Chesley, then-director of Pine Tree Camp on North Pond in Smithfield, said in 2005 the camp was among the targets of what he called a "hermit burglar." Mostly food was stolen, and Chesely found a canoe in the woods near the camp once, which wasn't the camp's and was well-hidden.
Staff file photo by Jim Evans
ROME — "The Hermit at North Pond" sounds like an Agatha Christie mystery novel.
But it's not — it's a story about a real-life burglar, who for at least the last 15 years has been picking his way through dozens of the 300 or so camps and houses around North Pond, which is surrounded by Smithfield, Mercer and Rome.
He's not your ordinary burglar, however.
According to local folklore and police information, the thief — whom the locals have nicknamed the Hermit — pilfers only food, clothing and essentials.
"He takes things like food, paper products, alcohol and reading material. He's been eating well," said Harvey Chesley, director of Pine Tree Camp, who said the lakeside camp for people with disabilities has been hit about 20 times in the 12 years since he has been employed there. "He doesn't take things like boats, motors and power tools. Money is never missing and he avoids doing damage. He will pry things open, or look for an open window. He even got ahold of a set of our keys once."
The tale is known around the law enforcement community.
"Oh, you mean the alleged Hermit around North Pond," said Somerset County Sheriff's Sgt. Paul York. "That's been going on for years. Some people have been hit over and over. I don't even know if anybody ever saw him. There is talk around the pond that he lives nearby. The (cases) I handled were basically food items, nothing as far as valuables. It's hard to pinpoint because we always have camp breaks over the winter and into spring, when we have a whole slew of camp breaks and we've no idea when they've occurred. Some people never report them."
Chesley said that April 27 he picked up enough groceries to feed about 30 people — frozen lasagna, chicken, soda. He put the food into the refrigerator at the camp's year-round cottage. When he arrived the next day it was gone. It appeared the burglar tried to pick the lock and, unsuccessful, jimmied a window instead.
Chesley said that two years ago a state trooper set up a video camera and got a picture of a burglar believed to be the Hermit. A still shot was made and the photo was circulated to town offices in Mercer, Smithfield and Rome, he said.
"He's a plump man wearing Dickey work pants with suspenders and a T-shirt. He has a big nose. He's Mr. Ordinary," Chesley said. "I had expected to see someone that looked like Jesus, or someone who had crumbs in his beard."
Chesley said he has found plastic bags stashed around the camp area in apparent readiness to take off with the loot, bags stuffed with items such as pepperoni or clothing from the laundry. In one case, the burglar took off with big cans of spaghetti and eight pounds of hot fudge.
"Now, what does he do with eight pounds of hot fudge?" said Chesley with a laugh.
Chesley said it's not funny, however. He said the problem is widespread and frustrates many camp owners.
"People feel violated. They need to feel safe in their own place," he said. "We had a North Pond Association annual meeting last year and a state trooper came. When they asked how many places had been broken into, over 80 camp owners raised their hands. One camp owner said he had been hit 25 times since 1990."
Police agree the camp breaks are prevalent, but said tracking down a camp burglar is not easy. Lt. Dale Lancaster with the state police said his officers have attended meetings of the North Pond Association and have worked together with the sheriff's office with little success.
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