Before they knew his name, they called him Roofman. He would cut holes in the roofs of chain stores and fast-food restaurants—usually a McDonald’s—then drop down through the ceiling and rob the startled employees. Sometimes he’d come in through the back wall, slipping in through a hole of his own making, only to pop out in the kitchen or storeroom; but it was mostly the roof and so the name quickly stuck.
The employees he held up were usually teenagers paid minimum wage working the morning shift or wearily closing up shop for the night, getting the day’s take ready to be counted. They didn’t have much incentive to try to stop Roofman; in any case, he was known for his gentle demeanor, without fail described as polite—in one oft-repeated example, even insisting that his victims put on their winter coats so that they could stay warm after he locked them all in a walk-in freezer.
An official spokesperson for McDonald’s offered perhaps the simplest explanation of the ongoing crime spree: Roofman was just “very brand loyal.”
But there was more to it than that. Hidden inside the repetitive floor plans and the daily schedules of these franchised businesses, Roofman had found the parameters of a kind of criminal Groundhog Day: a burglary that could be performed over and over in different towns, cities, and states—probably even different countries, if he’d tried—and his skills would only get better with each outing. In a very real sense, he was breaking into the same building again and again, endlessly duplicating the original crime.
For Roofman, it was as if each McDonald’s with its streamlined timetable and centrally controlled managerial regime was an identical crystal world: a corporate mandala of polished countertops, cash registers, supply closets, money boxes, and safes into which he could drop from above as if teleported there. Everything would be in similar locations, down to the actions taking place within each restaurant. At more or less the same time of day—whether it was a branch in California or in rural North Carolina—employees would be following a mandated sequence of events, a prescribed routine, and it must have felt as if he had found some sort of crack in space-time, a quantum filmloop stuttering without cease, an endless present moment always waiting to be robbed. It was the perfect crime—and he could do it over and over again.
For Roofman, it must have looked as if the rest of the world were locked in a trance, doing the exact same things at the exact same times of day—in the same kinds of buildings, no less—and not just in one state, but everywhere. It’s no real surprise, then, that he would become greedy, ambitious, overconfident, stepping up to larger and larger businesses—but still targeting franchises and big-box stores. They would all have their own spatial formulas and repeating events, he knew; they would all be run according to predictable loops inside identical layouts all over the country.
With overconfidence came carelessness, and after committing an estimated 40 burglaries in a little less than two years, Roofman was caught. He was arrested and sent to North Carolina’s Brown Creek Correctional Institution. Now the police finally knew his name and backstory: Roofman was Jeffrey Manchester, a former U.S. Army reservist with a peculiar eye for spatial patterns. But as quickly as they locked him up, he broke out, escaping from Brown Creek—the first person ever to do so—by hiding underneath a delivery truck. He was carried to safety by the easily memorized and predictable schedule of a package-delivery van.
Manchester made a beeline for nearby Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where he’d been told by his fellow inmates that sentences for commercial burglary were not as severe as in surrounding areas. There, his architectural proclivities took an especially bizarre turn. His (second) arresting officer, Sergeant Katherine Scheimreif of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, spoke to me about how it all unraveled.
When Scheimreif and the Charlotte Police found him again, Manchester had been living for several months inside an apartment of his own making, disguised behind a bicycle display in the walls of Toys “R” Us. He had actually burrowed so far into the wall that he ended up in an abandoned Circuit City next door. There, he constructed an even more elaborate home for himself, tucked beneath a stairwell. It was a twenty-four-hour burglary headquarters hidden inside the walls of an American chain store, taking his brand loyalty to a strange new level of spatial intensity where ever-more-elaborate plots could be hatched.
Scheimreif referred to Manchester’s unlikely abode as “his little spider hole,” and my first reaction was to assume that this was a condescending analogy, a cop’s put-down, as if comparing Manchester to vermin or to a bug. To an extent, it was—but Scheimreif was also being amusingly literal. Manchester had been sleeping on Spider-Man-themed bedsheets, with Spider-Man film posters tacked up on his makeshift walls, surrounded by DVDs stolen from the children’s toy store next door. This pirate of space-time, ritualistically breaking his way into identical commercial moments across the country, convinced of his own genius, had constructed for himself the escapist bedroom of an 11 year old.
But Manchester didn’t stop there. He also installed his own, parallel surveillance network inside the Toys “R” Us, using stolen baby monitors to spy on the movements of guards and employees, looking out for rhythms, patterns, and times of weakness as he planned his next blockbuster caper. “He would just watch the baby monitor and know exactly when everyone was coming and going,” Sergeant Scheimreif explained to me. It was a more sophisticated version of his old days as Roofman.
“Everything in these businesses is so procedurally organized,” she pointed out. “They put the money away at the same time; they cook the fries at the same time. These corporations organize things like this for a reason, but they’re not thinking about these other kinds of people.”
A McDonald’s or a Toys “R” Us is designed to facilitate a specific retail sequence in which customers enter, choose their goods, stand in line, and pay. But Sergeant Scheimreif’s “other kinds of people” have discovered something like a parallel world hidden inside all of this: these sequences also entirely accidentally contain a kind of countersequence, a crime nestled in the building’s lulls and blind spots. It’s the flip side of all those regularized floor plans, daily schedules, and employee rhythms. It’s the same dots connected to make a different picture.
With his own surveillance network in place, Manchester made perhaps his best discovery of all: he could actually rearrange and interfere with the building’s rhythms until they began to form the pattern he was waiting for. Indeed, Manchester “had become so attuned to his Toys ‘R’ Us,” Sergeant Scheimreif added, “that he actually began changing its security system and changing the schedules of the employees.” No longer content simply to wait for the perfect moment to show itself, as he once did at McDonald’s, he was now rescheduling guards and store managers alike in order to engineer the right circumstances into existence, as if assembling a puzzle. Then he struck.
These elaborate preparations for the world’s most ambitious takeover robbery of a children’s toy store were thwarted, however, by an event outside the perfect world Manchester had created. An off-duty sheriff’s deputy unexpectedly arrived, throwing off his meticulously arranged plans. Roofman resorted to violence, punching the female deputy, stealing her gun, and fleeing the premises.
For the police, a slew of random details began falling into place. An earlier false alarm at the toy store had been blamed on a rodent, but suspicions had nonetheless been raised. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police had already searched the abandoned Circuit City next door—even tugging on an odd piece of drywall that was an entrance to Manchester’s burrow. His bizarre hiding spot was now soon discovered.
While going back through his case, including a review of his behavior at the Brown Creek Correctional Institution before he made his escape, Sergeant Scheimreif found that Manchester had apparently spent a lot of time in his cell drawing up plans for his future dream home. Not a mansion on a tropical island or a fantasy castle somewhere in the Alps, his dream house included a maze of trap-doors and what Sergeant Scheimreif called “escape holes.” It was everything he seemed to want a building to be—with near-infinite ways of getting from one room to another and no upper limit on the places he could hide.
Secret passages, “escape holes,” apartments hidden in the walls, and makeshift entrances sliced down through ceilings: this was the architectural world Roofman lived within and moved through, a universe of spatial possibilities tucked away deep inside our own. Sergeant Scheimreif laughed and deadpanned, “He definitely had a different way of looking at things.”
Excerpted from A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Geoff Manaugh. All rights reserved.
A Burglar’s Guide to the City is out now from FSG Originals. Geoff Manaugh wishes to thank Douglas McGray and Pat Walters for their editorial feedback on an intermediary version of this text.