For five years, someone prowled rural counties in upstate New York, pilfering pearl necklaces, gold chains, bracelets, coins, silverware and other valuables from an untold number of homes.
Now authorities face the daunting task of finding owners of the roughly 30,000 items discovered in 31 duffel bags after John Suddard's recent arrest. So police in the village of Hudson Falls, near the Vermont border, are taking the novel step of displaying the items at the local high school on Wednesday night.
Burglary victims will be invited in, and an officer will escort them around tables set up in the cafeteria to see if any of the items are theirs.
"I'm hoping," said Francesco Venturiello, whose Schenectady home was burglarized in May. He lost cash and roughly $75,000 worth his wife's jewelry, including irreplaceable pieces bought in Italy. "I swear to God, if we find anything in there, I'm going to have to call an ambulance. My wife will faint."
Suddard, who has served three prisons terms for burglary since he was 19, was arrested Dec. 21 as he attempted to pawn jewelry and coins at an Albany-area coin shop stolen the day before an hour north in Hudson Falls. He is being held in jail without bail on charges of possessing stolen property. It wasn't clear whether Suddard had a lawyer.
Suddard, 39, declined a phone interview from jail.
Hudson Falls Police Chief Randy Diamond said items recovered so far link Suddard to 24 burglaries, though there could be many more.
Police say the burglar's method of operation was basic: Wait until people leave their house, break in and search for cash and jewelry. He worked mostly in colder months, when the sun sets earlier. He struck whether the homeowners were gone for weeks or minutes. He kept burglar's tools and a camouflage ski mask in his car, police said.
"Seldom did he actually encounter anybody in the house," Washington County Undersheriff John Winchell said. "There were a couple of times when he was spooked -- people showed up and he had to run out the back door. ... Generally, his crimes went unnoticed for days."
The suspect pretty much stole "anything somebody would throw in their jewelry box," Winchell said, and then some. Along with jewelry, police found cash, coins, a handgun and game tokens.
"One of the bags I went through actually had an adult molar," Winchell said, "right down to the roots."
The duffel bags were found on the property of Suddard's brother-in-law, who is cooperating with the investigation.
Police believe most of the items were stolen since his last release from prison in 2007. He operated mostly in the cluster of three counties around Hudson Falls, though it's not clear how far Suddard traveled. He also spent some time in other Northeastern states and in Florida.
Diamond said it appears that Suddard pawned the most expensive items and may have held on to the remaining booty to sell later. Of the items recovered, a small number have inscriptions linking them to victims.
The display at Hudson Falls High School on Wednesday is for the items that can't be identified. The viewing is restricted to people who reported a burglary and have a police report. Victims will not be allowed to take identified items home just yet, because they are still potential evidence.
Diamond said the department has been inundated with calls from as far away as New Jersey and New Hampshire, some from callers missing cars, boats and other items clearly not involved in this case. With interest so heavy, police plan to do at least one more display after Wednesday.
"We've caught this guy; we need to link him to what we can and return the property that we can," Diamond said.