“Who is the greatest thief in history?” It wasn’t the question that so fascinated me that I brought it up in parties, as much as it was the answer. Among the myriad of answers I received to this question, were those quantified by dollar figures and historical notoriety. It is this focus on notoriety in this question, or the amount of media coverage, and subsequent historical analysis, that leads us to believe that the best of anything must be the most famous. That answer also provides an impetus for the most provocative answer I’ve heard on this particular subject. It suggests that too often we intertwine fame, or in this case infamy, with success. Thieves are human, of course, and the desire to be famous may drive some of them, but the overwhelming desire of a thief should be to escape unwanted attention of any kind, particularly when it leads to a level of notoriety or infamy. Thus, my final answer would be that we probably don’t know who the greatest thief of all time is, because he is as unknown to history as he was law enforcement officials at the time. The reason I consider this theoretical answer the perfect one is based on what I saw the best thief I ever saw, Kurt Lee, fall prey to in his formative years.
The most infamous thief that has ever existed, I would suggest, is likely not the same person as the most infamous thief we’ve ever known. The greatest thief that has ever existed was more discreet, more common, and less desirous of attention. That thief didn’t talk about his criminal exploits, even to his best friends and family, and he felt no need to brag, or otherwise bring any unwarranted attention to himself. He just stole things, and hurt people. He felt no need to leave a legacy, or any footprints in history.
Law enforcement officials will tell us that the crimes that keep them up at night are the random, or seemingly random, crimes that are almost impossible to solve. Law enforcement officials count on a number of factors to help them solve a crime, but the most prominent ones involve the characteristics of those with a criminal mind, or the thief’s mentality. Most criminals have never had any real money. If they found a way to make real money, they probably wouldn’t be thieves. Thus, when they manage to steal a large amount of money, most thieves spend that money in a manner that draws attention. Thus, when they show up with their extravagant purchases, people begin talking. Their people may not speak directly to law enforcement officials, but talk leads to talk. If the thief displays some restraint in this regard, they are apt to fall prey to another human conceit of wanting to tell others about their accomplishment, particularly those that have stated that the thief has accomplished nothing in life. The natural byproduct of those that are forced to endure the bragging is jealousy, and jealousy often leads to trusted friends and family making anonymous calls that can change the direction of an investigation. In the event that those with a with a thief’s mentality are able to avoid the typical pratfalls of criminal success, law enforcement officials will often sit back and wait for greed to take hold.
If a true piece of work (a POS) managed to pull off a $10,000 heist, that thief would not be satisfied with $10,000 dollars. The nature of the thief’s mentality –as taught to me by Kurt Lee– is such that they will probably be planning a $100,000 heist in their getaway car. Kurt Lee’s mentality suggested to me that a true POS would have so much wrapped up in that $10,000 theft that they would fall prey to all that is listed above, with greed being the most prominent.
I knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, for years. He was good friends with a fella that I managed to befriend. We spoke just about every day for years, but we were never so close that one would characterize as intimate. It wasn’t until Kurt Lee invited me, and the other fella, to join him at the baseball card shop that I received a window into Kurt Lee’s mentality. As detailed in the first installment of this series, by the time Kurt Lee and I were in the car driving over to the baseball card shop, the thrill of shoplifting had long since lost its flavor for him. He was so bored by it that he asked me if I wanted to watch him steal from the baseball card shop. I will confess to not knowing many true thieves throughout my life, so my reference base is limited, but I have to imagine that more experienced thieves would suggest that Kurt Lee was headed down a bad road here.
More experienced thieves might suggest that the very idea that Kurt Lee was attempting to accentuate the thrill of theft, by having another watch them do it, suggests that Kurt Lee wasn’t motivated by what they might call the philosophical purity of theft. He wasn’t doing it to balance economic equality, in other words, as some more experienced thieves manage to convince themselves that there is nothing wrong with stealing from the rich. He wasn’t doing it to put food on a table, or any reasons that a more experienced thieves might consider a more noble motivation. Kurt Lee was simply doing it for the thrill of it all, and once that thrill was gone, he needed to supplement it. A casual observer, just learning of Kurt Lee, might also suggest that he asked me to watch to quell some deep seeded need he had for approval or acceptance. I would’ve considered that notion foolish at the time, for the Kurt Lee I knew displayed no visible signs of caring what anyone thought of him, much less me. Hindsight being 20/20, however, one has to consider the idea that Kurt Lee may have cared far more than I ever considered plausible.
Another revelation I learned about Kurt Lee involved his desire to share the wealth. The young man I knew was always about spreading the wealth. These words came out of his mouth most often when another had something of excess that he wanted, but he did practice what he preached. He was a generous man. This leads me to believe that if the adult Kurt Lee had managed to successfully pull off a $10,000 heist, he would begin spreading the wealth around. He might hire the services of a prostitute for a night, he might give some of his newfound largess to a homeless person, or he might generously tip a waitress or a housekeeper, and he would probably do it in a manner that would lead people to talk. He would spread the wealth around just to be a guy that could, for one day in his otherwise miserable life. He would do it with the hope that that act of generosity might say more about him than the criminal act he committed to gain the money. His motivation for doing this would not be truly altruistic, in other words, and he would do it regardless if he considered the idea that these actions might lay some breadcrumbs for law enforcement.
The point is that this greatest thief in history, one presumably imbued with the same thief’s mentality, wouldn’t fall prey to these conceits. The point is that that legendary thief would be such an exception to the rules governing one with a thief’s mentality that he might be able to achieve something historic in the field of criminality.
Anyone that knew the unformed, maladjusted, high school-era Kurt Lee, wouldn’t need the prophetic words of a skilled thief to know that Kurt Lee was headed down a bad road. They also wouldn’t need anyone to tell them that he was susceptible to falling prey to the conceits listed above. As evidence of this, Kurt Lee became the center of attention at one point in his high school years.
Someone learned some things about the ways of Kurt Lee, and they spread the word throughout our school. I don’t know what was said to spread the word, but I have to believe that it had something to do with the idea that for all of Kurt Lee’s humor and charm, he was not a nice guy. ‘Far from it,’ I imagine these people saying to the others. ‘He’s actually quite a POS.’ I imagine them feeling the need to bolster their presentation in this manner, because if they told their friends that they found a guy that was hilarious and charming, and they added that he was actually a pretty nice guy, those listening to the presentation would have no interest. Whatever that person said to describe Kurt Lee clicked, because he ended up becoming something of a celebrity in some quarters. The top athletes at our school were dying to hear what he was going to do, or say, next. They found him hilarious. The cool kids even stopped by to get Kurt Lee’s reaction to the current events of our school. They had never seen anything like him. He was like a real life Al Bundy in their midst. Those of us that tried to avoid being impressed by such people couldn’t believe the amount of attention Kurt Lee was receiving. Kurt Lee couldn’t believe it either, and more importantly, he couldn’t understand it.
Those of us that witnessed the effect Kurt Lee could have on young, unformed males, would consider the idea that young males are attracted to true POS’s with a thief’s mentality irrefutable. I don’t make any claims to being immune to this either. As the previous entry suggests, I found Kurt Lee hilarious. Some may consider it a bit of a stretch to suggest that the young, unformed male mind wants to witness a bully hurt and humiliate others, but if it happens most young males want to be there to witness it. This idea is bolstered by the manner in which those that were there tell the story of the incident to those that weren’t. In their play-by-play rundown, they have trouble stifling their laughter, because they know no one enjoys hearing a story from a guy that can’t stop laughing as he tells it.
Kurt Lee opened a wormhole in our understanding of what it took to be the honest man. He was so unflinching in his dishonesty that some of us considered him more honest than the most honest man we knew. He was a genuine article of consistent, and unflinching, dishonesty. When Kurt Lee learned that these aspects of his personality appealed to a wide swath of people our age, he exaggerated these characteristics in a way that suggested he didn’t understand their appeal any more than anyone else did, and his answer to whatever dilemma plagued him was to try to live up to the caricature that had been built for him.
Kurt Lee became that bully, thief, and POS that every young, unformed male dreamed of being but dared not stretch to the point of violating societal norms. Kurt Lee mocked the mentally challenged, he picked fights with guys that were so much smaller than him that they presented no challenge, and he openly challenged anyone he considered at the bottom of the food chain to bolster his personal portfolio for those in attendance. Prior to this brief taste of popularity, Kurt Lee was a POS in all these ways, but he displayed a bit more discretion. Once he discovered how much the athletes and cool kids loved it, he was balls out.
The problem with becoming such a character is that an ugly truth will rear its head. Young, unformed males eventually grow bored with a consistent character no matter how offensive and insensitive that individual may be. When that happens, the instinctual response of such a character is to up their game even more, and exaggerate those characteristics that everyone loved fifteen minutes ago, until the character ends up doing it so often, and to such excess, that he ends up revealing a desire to be accepted. This new game face stood in stark contrast to the very characteristics that made Kurt Lee so appealing in the first place, to those in the upper caste system of high school. It also resulted in the implosion I detailed in the first installment.
This implosion occurred when something went missing. Kurt Lee plead innocence, on numerous occasions, claiming that he was being unfairly singled out by our school, and he may have been, but Kurt Lee had made a name for himself for all the wrong reasons. He may have been such an obvious suspect that he was too obvious, but Kurt Lee ended up getting expelled from our school.
If I been permitted to caution Kurt Lee, prior to this incident, I would’ve informed him that these athletes and cool kids don’t give a crap about you. They may “like” you in the short-term, as they take what they want from you, in this case entertainment, but once they have expended you as a resource they will leave you out at the curb. They don’t care if you’re an actual POS, or if you’re just playing that character well. They don’t care if a person wants their attention, they won’t pay as much attention to them as they did fifteen minutes ago once they see through the veneer. This long-term view would not have mattered to Kurt Lee however, he wanted to bask in the glow. When that brief spell ended, Kurt was wounded, and he attempted to up his game even more, until he ended up getting expelled, and eventually incarcerated for other, unrelated matters.
The characteristic that separated Kurt Lee from the few thieves I’ve encountered, was that he didn’t reject the premise of being a thief. He may have defended himself against the idea that honest people were any better than him, and he might have preached from the book of thieves by claiming that we were all as flawed, in varying ways, as he was, but he did have an unusual amount of pride in being what he was.
Decades later, those of us that went to school with Kurt Lee were all standing around a funeral engaged in a ‘What ever happened to’ conversation regarding our old classmates. Kurt Lee’s name happened to come up. The mere mention of his name was followed by laughter, as we all remembered the awful things he did to people. Someone in our group attempted to quell that laughter by mentioning that he thought Kurt Lee was actually a pretty awful person. No one said a word. That silence, I can only presume, occurred as a result of everyone considering that characterization to be glaringly obvious. Another spoke about Kurt Lee’s expulsion from our school, and the incarceration for an unrelated crime. Those that didn’t know about the incarceration laughed when they heard about it, but it wasn’t the bitter laugh that often comes from those that were bullied, ridiculed, and beat up by a guy in high school. This was a knowing laugh from those that figured that’s where Kurt Lee would eventually end up. Then the subject changed, and it didn’t change because some of those, at the gathering, harbored ill-will towards Kurt Lee, and they wanted to move on in life. The sense that they had already moved past all that was palpable. The subject changed because no one truly cared what happened to the man.
I have this notion, that if Kurt Lee were a celestial being, witnessing this conversation, with the ghost of Christmas past over his shoulder, he may have offered a number of excuses for why people thought he was so awful. He could’ve informed the ghost of Christmas past that he was a dumb kid at the time, and he could’ve said something along the lines of the idea that his bullying made some of those in attendance at the funeral stronger in life. Kurt Lee may have experienced a slight twinge of guilt, hearing our accounts of him, but I don’t think so. I think he would’ve enjoyed hearing us talk about him. Seeing how quickly we changed the subject, however, and all that it intoned about how we felt about him long-term, probably would have stung.
The fundamental mistake that Kurt Lee made, a mistake that most of us make at that age, is that we don’t understand human nature. We don’t understand how few people truly care about what happens to us, and we fail to grasp that nothing –including internal squabbles, politics, and the desire to be more popular– should keep us from these people. The mistake we make occurs when we seek the approval of others, because we often direct that effort at those that don’t give a crap about us in any kind of comprehensive manner. Kurt Lee made the fundamental mistake of believing that when those cool kids were laughing at the things he did that they were laughing with him. He made the mistake of believing when others are interested in what he had to say about something that they are interested in him, and I can only presume that when these truths were made evident, and he attempted to double down on those characteristics they enjoyed, it ended up destroying him from the inside out.
As evidence of this, one of the members of this conversation knew some things about the adult, post-high school Kurt Lee. He told a couple of stories about how Kurt Lee began stealing bigger and better things more often. “He didn’t learn his lessons from high school,” this storyteller informed us. “He grew so bold that one could call some of the things he did stupid.” Some may place whatever it was that drove the adult Kurt Lee to steal more expensive items, at a greater rate, under the umbrella of greed, but I think it goes much deeper than that. I think that expulsion, and the end of the life he once knew, drove him to neglect those mountain lion skills he once displayed by refraining from launching on his prey, until he could determine that there was absolutely no chance of any harm coming to him. The stories I heard, that day at the funeral, of Kurt Lee stealing such conspicuous items were so confusing that I couldn’t help but think they were troubling and obvious cries for help.
Kurt Lee was the best thief I’ve ever known, and he influenced my theoretical view on what the greatest thief in the history of man might do to get away with it all, with a sound mind and a guilt-free heart. For if this theoretical thief were to fall prey to some of the same things Kurt Lee did, in his formative years, that thief would have to learn the lessons from his formative years well. The Kurt Lee I knew, never did, and the fact that he ended up doing time suggests that the adult, post-high school Kurt Lee didn’t either. It suggests that he imploded under the weight of whatever he was when I knew him.