Thief of Police
Tony White loves the police. In his free time, the 39-year-old Minneapolis native dresses in T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with logos from various law enforcement agencies. He drives retired squad cars, mostly Ford Crown Victorias, but occasionally Chevrolet Caprices or Ford Mustangs. Sometimes these vehicles are adorned with license plates indicating that White is a Minnesota state trooper or a Washington County sheriff's deputy.
White has an encyclopedic knowledge of police cars and equipment. He knows what kind of vehicle every police department in the state of Minnesota drives and with what type of equipment they're outfitted. He can distinguish a '98 Crown Victoria from a '99 simply by the design of the car's grille, and he can tell you the difference between an MX StrikeForce Lightbar and a Code 3 LED X 2100 Lightbar.
Sometimes White's behavior leads people to believe that he is a cop. He always backs into parking spots, just in case a speedy departure is required, and sometimes cruises down the highway with lights and siren activated. When people mistake White for an officer, he doesn't correct their misperception.
"He would make a wonderful officer," claims White's friend and business associate Marvin Leonard, who has known him for two decades. "If somebody's in trouble, if there's an accident on the highway, he stops and helps. He's directed traffic when there's major wrecks and stuff. He's had a lot of officers thank him for being so helpful."
"He wants to be a cop, really," says his 69-year-old father, John White. "He wants to be a policeman and this is his way of showing it."
Unfortunately, Tony White is not, and never has been, a police officer. He is, in fact, a criminal who has a long history of being arrested by the police officers he so admires. His rap sheet shows 16 convictions in Minnesota and Wisconsin over the past 15 years, almost exclusively for theft. In the past year alone White has been charged with seven different felonies. One reason he has been so spectacularly unsuccessful as a thief is that he deals almost exclusively in police cars and equipment. He incessantly purchases, sells, and steals anything remotely associated with law enforcement, from Fridley police patches to fully functioning ambulances. Most recently he was convicted of pilfering a brand-new St. Paul squad car. White has been permanently banned from state government auctions for passing bad checks. Practically every police department in the state has encountered him over the years.
White also possesses a driving record that suggests he watched a few too many episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard growing up in Minneapolis and Minnetonka. In Hennepin County alone he has been cited 25 times since 1987 for driving without a valid license. On numerous occasions he has engaged in high-speed, long-distance car chases with the police. In 1999 White led officers on a roughly 60-mile pursuit through Cass and Aitkin counties, reaching speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour. The chase ended only when his car was knocked from the road and flipped over.
"I classify him as a con man," says St. Paul Sgt. Tom Bergren, who recently investigated White for auto theft. "The only difference between him and other con people that I deal with is that he has a fixation on police and police equipment. He's obsessed with it. He lives for this, absolutely lives for it--and he loves it."
For now, White can't drive his beloved squad cars. He's in prison. It's safe to say the police do not return Tony White's love.
One evening in early June, Fred Bowen arrived at his home alongside Highway 10 in Arden Hills to discover a black Crown Victoria parked in his front yard. That in itself was not unusual. Since February Bowen had operated a taxicab and courier service, and there were often vans and cars shoehorned into every free inch of space in his yard.
What stood out about this particular vehicle, however, was that it had license plates indicating that it belonged to a Minnesota state trooper. The car was also equipped with a partition cage dividing the front and back seats, and a push bar to protect the grille and headlights in case of a collision. "I'm thinking, What the hell is that unmarked squad car doing in my front yard?" Bowen recalls from his kitchen on a recent Saturday, smoking a steady stream of both Marlboro and Camel cigarettes.
When the driver of the Crown Victoria emerged from the vehicle, his appearance did little to put Bowen at ease. The man was wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the FBI. The stranger was Tony White. He wanted to know if Bowen might be interested in purchasing some retired police vehicles. At the time, White's unannounced visit seemed fortuitous. Business at Bowen's taxi and courier service was exploding, and he was in need of more cars.
Despite a few troubling aspects to White's behavior--like the state trooper tags adorning the Crown Victoria--Bowen began doing business with him. White would often buy cars directly from police departments. He seemed to know every police chief from Fairmont to Thief River Falls. "Every time he bought a car he talked them out of a police patch or a shirt," Bowen says. "He was a very personable guy. All the cops loved him."
During the ensuing months White practically moved into Bowen's home. He spent time teaching one of Bowen's sons about car engines and parts. When Bowen took a fishing trip to Canada, White pitched in by dispatching cabs. Sometimes White would stay so late into the evening that he had to be asked to leave.
The relationship with White came to an abrupt end in early October, when, Bowen says, he wrote out a check for $36,100 to purchase a slew of cars and equipment at auction. White was supposed to immediately reimburse him for his share of the haul so that the check wouldn't bounce, but instead he disappeared. When the money hadn't materialized four days later, Bowen contacted the police.
He has heard from his former friend and business associate only once since then. White called him at work and threatened him. "I can see you through the window, fat-ass," Bowen recalls him saying. "You better watch your back." Bowen was more angry than scared. He couldn't believe that the cops had told White that Bowen had snitched on him and then set him free.
In the ensuing days, Bowen alleges, White repeatedly drove past his house. Bowen's wife insists that she even saw him roll by dressed as a woman. After a warrant was again issued for White's arrest, Bowen says, he tried to help the FBI engineer a sting. "I had one of my drivers try to set up a meeting with him to buy a car and he basically just laughed it off," he says.
Bowen would be content never to see White again. "I'd rather strangle him right now than look at him," he says. Yet he also retains a certain admiration for White's chutzpah. "The guy has brass balls as big as anyone could freakin' imagine."
The past year was a particularly adventurous one for White, even by his own impressive standards. On May 28, Minnetonka police officers visited the Carefree Living senior apartment complex to investigate a suspected theft of a Ford Bronco. As officer David Riegert pulled into the lot where the vehicle was parked, he observed a Chevrolet Tahoe coming toward him at a "high rate of speed." According to police reports, the Tahoe struck Riegert's squad car, drove over part of the front of his vehicle, and then headed west on Minnetonka Drive. Officer Riegert set off in pursuit, lights and siren activated. The driver of the Tahoe was Tony White.
The high-speed chase proceeded south on Williston Road, then west on Highway 7, with White flying past oblivious motorists on the shoulder. At the intersection of County Road 101, White finally pulled into the parking lot of a Cub Foods. Officer Riegert rammed the Tahoe, pushing it onto a grassy knoll and against a large rock. Unfortunately, the collision also forced his squad car to slide into a light pole. Officer Riegert then emerged from his vehicle, drew his weapon, and approached the Chevy Tahoe. But White somehow managed to free his vehicle and took off again, heading north on 101. With another officer now in pursuit, White's behavior became even more erratic. He crossed the median separating the northbound and southbound lanes of the road, circling four or five times, and then pulled into the 7-Hi Shopping Center.
At this point, unbelievably, with White seemingly taunting the cops, the pursuit was abandoned. By then the police officers recognized whom they were dealing with--White's picture had been circulated among Minnetonka cops--and decided it was too dangerous to continue pursuing him. They figured White would pop up again soon enough. "That's the thing about Tony; he never strays far away," says Minnetonka Lt. Mark Raquet. "You always know he's going to surface." White was charged with fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle. In June, he was charged for possessing stolen goods in connection with a pilfered squad car from Madison, Wisconsin. A month later Eden Prairie police arrested him after a 10-mile chase that came to a halt when the road dead-ended at a gravel pit. On October 3 the St. Paul Police Department discovered that a 2003 Crown Victoria had been stolen from its garage in the Midway neighborhood. Nobody was sure exactly how long the vehicle had been missing, but it appeared to be an inside job: The keys to the squad car were also absent.
It didn't take long for Sgt. Tom Bergren to finger White as his primary suspect. Despite his lengthy criminal record, White was a regular visitor to the garage on Energy Park Drive. Joel Matters, a mechanic at the facility, says that White had been dropping by for at least two years. "He just would stop in," Matters notes. "He was usually looking for used tires, and then he always wanted to look at what we were selling. He was always buying police cars, fixing them up, and selling them." During the evenings, when Matters was one of the few people around, White came and went as he pleased. "I would talk to him for a while and then I would get back to work," the mechanic says. When the Crown Victoria disappeared, along with the keys, Matters realized that he'd been naive. "He had me totally faked out. I guess I'm just too trusting."
What's most striking about White's criminal behavior is the sheer audacity. His exploits, whether driven by some neurological disorder or simple thrill seeking, seem designed not to fool the cops but to provoke them. After White was arrested without incident in mid-October, he eventually led officers to the contraband St. Paul squad car. Marvin Leonard says that his friend was simply paying back the police for repeatedly seizing his own vehicles. "A guy gets sick and tired of that, so then you start playing a game: You take my car, I'll take yours," Leonard laughs.
The cops, however, were not amused, although Bergren notes that the vehicle was in pristine condition when it was recovered. "I don't think he did this to be destructive to the police," Bergren surmises. "He had every opportunity to wreck this new vehicle. I asked him about that, specifically, about would he damage vehicles. And he said, 'No, I would never hurt these cars. I would never do any damage to them.' He absolutely loves these vehicles."
During the course of the car theft investigation, officers also collected evidence that White was storing stolen police property at his mother's apartment in Eagan. On October 23 the St. Paul and Eagan police departments executed a search warrant on the residence, turning up a trove of law enforcement equipment. Among the loot recovered was a Minneapolis police hat with badge, two Minnesota state patrol license plates, a box of police squad pants, a deputy sheriff's badge from Jackson County, Wisconsin, and a St. Paul Fire Department radio worth more than $2,500.
By the end of October White had been charged with seven felonies and one misdemeanor in Ramsey and Hennepin counties. If prosecuted to the full extent of the law, he faces the possibility of more than 30 years in prison.
White doesn't seem to harbor a grudge against Sergeant Bergren for helping to send him back to jail, however. The felon has called to ask if Bergren would visit.
It's tempting to dismiss Tony White as an innocuous trickster. He's a small man, at less than five-foot-six and 125 pounds, and he speaks at a dizzying, disarming clip. Mug shots reveal a balding, bearded man with a hangdog gaze and crooked nose. In dealing with the courts and the cops, White often displays a puckish demeanor. When asked at a court hearing in November what his current address was, White jokingly replied, "Ramsey County Jail."
His brazen disregard for the law and high-speed exploits are amusing, even inspiring, in a perverse way. Who wouldn't want to careen down the highway at triple-digit speeds with sirens blaring? Or hoodwink the very officers charged with enforcing the laws? There's a certain outlaw romanticism to his misdeeds that has a storied place in American culture, from Bonnie and Clyde to the Unabomber. Unfortunately, as with those of other outlaws, White's adventures have occasionally hurt people.
On November 1, 1994, White was speeding east on Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park. He was driving an ambulance with the siren and lights activated. As the mid-afternoon traffic waited for the light to change, White attempted to barrel through the intersection at Alabama Avenue and plowed straight into a pickup truck that was making a left-hand turn.
According to the police report, White stopped the ambulance, briefly checked on the injured driver of the pickup truck, and then continued on his way. The ambulance was later discovered a few blocks away, where it had been discarded after hitting a parked car.
The pickup truck driver, William Gundlach, was sent to Methodist Hospital, where his spleen was removed. He also suffered damage to his lungs and other internal organs. Gundlach was hospitalized for a week.
Five years later, on May 11, 1999, state trooper Brad Bordwell attempted to pull White over in Hill City for speeding. White took off. Traveling west on Highway 200 in the rain, with his then 65-year-old father in the car, he reached speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour. Officers from the Hill City and Cass and Aitkin counties joined trooper Bordwell in the pursuit. "Stop sticks" were deployed, but White managed to swerve around them. At one point White led officers down County Road 54, a "minimum maintenance" road. "It's got potholes and chuckholes, you name it," Bordwell recalls. "It was just a mess."
Bordwell repeatedly bumped the fleeing Crown Victoria in an attempt to make White stop, but to no avail. The state trooper was close enough to notice that White's car was equipped with a police radio. "I told dispatch, 'I think I'm chasing a police officer or a law enforcement vehicle,'" he says. Finally, after a pursuit of 60 miles, White was faced with a 90-degree turn. Bordwell plowed into the right back tire of the car, sending it off the road and onto its roof. Amazingly, neither White nor his father was injured.
Bordwell was not so lucky. When the chase finally ended, he realized that he couldn't turn his head to the right. He was hospitalized and treated for a cervical sprain. "It was painful for a good eight months," says Bordwell. "I couldn't sleep and I'd get headaches. I still have pain from it."
White blamed his behavior on the fact that there were warrants out for his arrest. "I panicked and took off," he said in an interview later that afternoon. "That's when the chase was on." White also bragged that the only reason he got caught was because Bordwell's Chevy had a more powerful engine than his Ford. "He just thinks it's a big game," Bordwell concludes.
Despite the considerable damage that White's deeds have caused, he has never been charged with a serious violent crime, such as assault with a deadly weapon. The courts have repeatedly dropped one or more of the charges against White in return for a guilty plea. In November, he pleaded guilty in Ramsey County District Court to theft, auto theft, and fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle. As part of a deal struck with prosecutors, one other felony charge was dropped, and White received a 22-month sentence.
Since 1987 White has been sentenced to a total of more than 16 years in jail. Even allowing for good behavior, he should have done more than a decade of hard time. This hasn't happened, because of another wrinkle in how the courts have handled his cases. Because of White's nearly continuous criminal pursuits, he has often had several cases pending in different jurisdictions at the same time. Instead of piling the sentences on top of each other, the courts have often ordered that he be allowed to serve them concurrently. In 1996, for example, White was convicted of theft in Washington County after passing a bad check to purchase a 1989 Ford Mustang at a state auction. The maximum sentence for such an offense is 10 years. At the time of the conviction he was already facing jail time for similar crimes committed in Hennepin and Freeborn counties. Despite the string of offenses, White received just 24 months for the Washington County theft, to be served simultaneously with the other sentences.
John White is a retired mail carier who now resides at an assisted-living facility in Minnetonka. He says that he attempted to channel his son's interest in law enforcement in positive directions. He encouraged Tony to join a program run by the Minnetonka Police Department that teaches young people about law enforcement. "I tried to talk him into that when he was a kid, but he never would go," recalls White. "He never had time for it."
Tony attended Minnetonka High School through the 11th grade, but he did not graduate. High school yearbooks from the period reveal few traces of his existence, save the standard head shot. He apparently did not participate in the Whopper-eating contests or write for the school newspaper. The yearbook from Tony's sophomore year identifies him erroneously as "Anthony Whitt." By high school he was already infatuated with law enforcement. "He would go on these ride-alongs with the policemen, in the squads, for four hours or whatever it was," recalls his dad.
Tony's uncle, Robert White, remembers that his nephew always struggled to fit in. "He had a pretty rough time in high school, partially because of his size," White recalls. "He's no athlete at all. He's no dummy, but he don't think straight either. He shoots himself in the foot."
Following high school, Tony started a towing business. It wasn't long, however, before he got into the line of work that has consumed him ever since, buying and selling used police cars and equipment. Robert White says that he's tried to help Tony out over the years by allowing him to store vehicles at his house when there was nowhere else to put them. "It wasn't unusual to come home and see an ambulance parked in the driveway or a police car," says White. "It was here for a day, maybe half a day, and then it was gone."
Robert White's benevolence has not always been rewarded. On March 7 of last year, Minnetonka police were called to White's house to check on his welfare. His cleaning lady had become alarmed when she'd seen a car in his garage but could not get him to answer the door, and she called the cops. "She was afraid I'd died in bed last night," White recalls. As it turned out, he was simply on vacation, visiting a daughter in Oklahoma. Tony was temporarily storing the vehicle, a blue Crown Victoria, there.
When officers checked the car's identification number, they discovered that it was a stolen Madison, Wisconsin, squad car. It had been stripped of most police equipment, including a radar gun, computer, and mounted video camera. When police questioned Tony White, he admitted that it was his vehicle but denied knowing that it was stolen. He initially claimed to have bought it at an auction in Appleton, Wisconsin, and then changed his story, insisting that the vehicle was purchased at a truck stop near Chicago from a man named Mohammad Abdi. White was charged with receiving stolen goods, one of the felony counts that is currently pending in Hennepin County.
Robert White believes that his nephew's intentions are benign. "I have always given Tony the benefit of the doubt," he says. "It's my opinion that he did not go down to Madison and steal a car. I don't know who he was dealing with, and whether he had any reason to believe it was stolen."
White speculates that one reason Tony continues to run afoul of the law is that his mother has always made excuses for him, blaming her son's troubles on a police vendetta. "About 90 percent of his problem is his mother," he surmises. "No matter what happened, it was never Tony's fault."
John White says that he's tried to persuade his son to get into a line of work that doesn't involve the police, but without luck. "His response is, 'It's the only thing I do, it's the only thing I know.' He goes on and on about that," White laments. "He doesn't want to be tied down to certain hours of a week, go to work at seven and get off at three. He wants to, like a painter, name his own hours. He's always been that way."
Tony's never been married. He doesn't drink or smoke. His only vices are sirens and speed. "Cripes, he don't even drink coffee," says Marvin Leonard. "He's got a natural high about himself. He's real excitable."
White's own assessment of his unsuccessful career as a con artist is impossible to discern. He has been incarcerated since November and did not respond to two letters from City Pages requesting an interview. Kassius Benson, White's Hennepin County public defender, says his client is not interested in talking.
White's mother, with whom he lived before his most recent arrest, has also proven elusive. (She is divorced from John White.) A letter and repeated phone calls to her went unanswered. Several visits to her Eagan apartment also elicited no response.
While it is impossible to get a definitive reading on what makes White tick, there are some intriguing possibilities. Perhaps the most interesting (if far-flung) prospect is that he suffers from a neurological disorder called Asperger's Syndrome. Asperger's is similar to autism, with the distinction that people who suffer from it have normal intelligence levels. The disorder was first described in the 1940s by an Austrian pediatrician named Hans Asperger but was not recognized as a medical diagnosis in the United States until 1994. Asperger's patients are emotionally distant, often unable to grasp the fundamentals of social interactions. They generally speak in a monotone and avoid eye contact.
The most peculiar characteristic of Asperger's patients, however, is that, like White, they develop a consuming interest in one particular subject. They often memorize obscure facts about their obsession or collect seemingly useless materials related to it. Dr. George Realmuto, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, says that he's treated Asperger's patients whose fixations included mushrooms, blocks, marbles, and Gopher sports. One kid was consumed with collecting garage door openers. "He comes in with his family, looks at me, shakes my hand, and says, 'What kind of garage door opener do you have?'" Realmuto recalls.
In one notorious case, reminiscent of White's situation, a New York City man has been convicted 19 times for impersonating a transit system employee. A recent Harper's story recounted how Darius McCollum repeatedly drove trains throughout the New York subway system even though he was not working for the transit authority. Many people attributed McCollum's behavior to Asperger's Syndrome.
Another possible explanation for White's conduct is that he suffers from some kind of impulse control disorder, like kleptomania. Sergeant Bergren speculates that White is simply unable to resist the temptation to engage in illegal activities. "If he was a sex offender he'd be locked up for life," Bergren says. "It's just that his obsession happens to be these police cars and police equipment."
White is now facing 22 months in prison for his Ramsey County crimes. Three other felony charges are pending in Hennepin County. He will be out of commission for a while, but based on past experience there is little doubt that he will someday return to the highway, siren blaring.
Even if White were diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome or an impulse control disorder, it is doubtful that it would make much difference legally. Jon Grant, co-director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at the University of Minnesota, who is also a lawyer, says that only people with severe psychoses have successfully used the defense that they cannot control their behavior and therefore are not responsible for their crimes. In one famous local case, a St. Paul man named Max Weisberg was found mentally incompetent to stand trial on bookmaking charges. Weisberg is borderline retarded, but a savant when it comes to numbers. Grant says that such defenses have not proven successful for people who suffer from impulse control disorders such as kleptomania or gambling. "It has not been applied successfully to these types of behaviors, though people have tried, particularly in the case of gambling addiction," he notes.
Of course there might be another explanation for White's mischief. He might simply be a thief.
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