MOST PEOPLE IN KEWANEE, ILL., regarded 5'11", 250-lb. Roger "Tank" Harlow as a shining example of civic spirit. Known for his easy smile and chummy manner, the 47-year-old insurance agent was more than just a successful businessman. Voted Most Likely to Succeed by his 1967 classmates at Wethersfield High School, he had gone on to become an energetic officer in the Kiwanis and Elks clubs and a Sunday-school teacher at Zion Lutheran Church. "He was one of the most community-minded around," says dentist Doug Tomlinson, who first met Harlow in 1978. "The kind of guy who did the work when you needed things done."
As it turns out, though, Harlow didn't limit his civic activities to what other people needed. Police say that for more than 15 years he was the most accomplished burglar in Kewanee, a tightly knit manufacturing community of 13,000 located 45 miles northwest of Peoria, where almost no one locked their doors. Last Aug. 17, to the astonishment of local residents, he was arrested and charged with stealing from the homes of even his closest friends. Confronted with the charges, Harlow admitted he was virtually a one-man crime wave, having taken at least $100,000 in coins, collectibles, jewelry and other valuables from his neighbors since 1993.
Harlow picked his targets carefully, using the comfortable rhythms and routines of small-town life to his advantage. Patrick Murphy, a printing-products salesman, says Harlow invariably golfed alone at the Midland Country Club. "He'd play whatever hole was open, jumping from the 8th to the 15th and back to the 6th," says Murphy. "We thought that was just Roger, but now we realize he may have been going into houses along the course." (Several burglaries occurred in that area.) Harlow also had a reputation for being chronically late for meetings, a gambit that police believe gave him time to enter the homes of the people who were waiting for him.
Over the years, Kewanee residents also noticed that their good-natured neighbor had a habit of showing up in their homes uninvited, presumably when he thought no one was around. Bonnie Tomlinson came out of her bathroom one day to find Harlow standing in her hallway. "He said he was dropping off my tickets to the pancake breakfast," says her husband, Doug, who had two rings stolen from the house. While school district secretary Brenda Schmidt was receiving chemotherapy, her daughter discovered Harlow in the family's kitchen. His explanation: that he had left peppermint ice cream in the freezer to celebrate Brenda's return from the hospital. Soon afterward, Schmidt noticed that her diamond engagement ring was missing.
Many victims suspected that their children's friends or other visitors had made off with the missing items. The burglaries might have gone on indefinitely had police not received a tip that someone not associated with Harlow found him wandering in the house. Last June detectives began monitoring his movements and observed him cruising, among other places, in the parking lot at the country club, taking note of who was on the course. "We then observed him going into residences at will," says Det. Lt. Rod Huber.
Even the undercover cops came away impressed by Harlow's charm. When Det. Sgt. Joe Cervantez's unmarked car skidded off a wet road while trailing the suspect's 1993 Chevy Lumina from a discreet distance, Cervantez's prey pulled over a short time later on his return trip. "I looked up and there's Roger asking, 'Can I help you?' " he recalls. "We struggled to get my car out and made small talk about the weather."
The game finally ended when Harlow entered the home of Darrell and Marilyn Johnson, which the detectives had wired with an alarm. He finally was apprehended with 19 of Darrell's antique coins in his pocket. Eventually, Harlow was charged with 82 counts of residential burglary—-more than half of such crimes reported to local police over the past two years. In his confession, Harlow said he began stealing in mid-1993 and fencing some of the goods to out-of-state dealers after his insurance license was suspended for a year.
But Henry County prosecutor Ted Hamer believes Harlow had been stealing for more than a decade and offered a simpler motive: "Greed." Authorities are convinced that Harlow's wife, Beverly, a grammar-school teacher, their son Ben and daughter Sarah never knew about the thefts.
Harlow now faces up to 1,230 years in prison. This spring a judge will decide his sentence after hearing testimony from Harlow's victims. "To think that someone you knew for 18 years could steal from you is quite amazing," says Patrick Murphy's wife, Sandy. "It's almost like you don't want to trust your friends anymore."
JONI H. BLACKMAN in Kewanee
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine