Stolen Underwear: An Occurrence That Points To Serious Problems

On better days, I accept it as proof of life's essential mystery.

The fact that my bras and underwear are disappearing confirms the idiosyncrasy reigning as the universe expands and my load of whites shrinks.

On worse days, the cosmic joke tastes bitter.

It all started one day last December when I pulled open the underwear drawer and couldn't find the good ones. A week later, the good bras were still nowhere to be found. Confusion alighted. Could I be losing my underwear?

Who would do such a thing?

After frisking my apartment, I had to conclude they were stolen from the laundry room in the basement of my Capitol Hill apartment building. At first I thought the culprit a desperate woman. Who else, after all, would steal a woman's underwear?

So began an enlightening journey.

After conversing about underwear with everyone from sex-offender therapists to prosecutors to cops who bust thieves with colorful stashes - as many as 240 pairs - of women's underwear, I learned that penniless women were not the source of the problem and that the theft was anything but a freak occurrence.

Said one female investigator in the Kirkland Police Department: "If (a burglary victim) can't find anything that's gone, the first thing I ask is did you check the underwear drawer?"

As ridiculous as the problem first appears, the sobering truth is that that impulse to steal underwear can be related to drives far more serious. Perhaps a quarter of all men who engage in such fetishes and nuisance behaviors also have raped women; half may have molested girls, indicates one major scientific study.

But first, consider having your underwear supply dwindle to the ones with frittered elastic.

I can barely pay my phone bill and keep my 1980 VW up to rigorous DOL specifications, keeping both front and back license plates displayed at the same time, when some pervert steals $60 worth of underwear.

Waiting in the dark

Foolishly, I realize later, I decide to face "him." A windowless basement room; a load of whites. I wait in the dark to see who takes the bait.

Luckily, the hour alone with a thumping dryer produced nothing but Tide-laced memories of my mother's laundry room back home in Minnesota.

Over the next few months I start chatting easily about underwear with perfect strangers. Police officers from Kirkland, Redmond and King County related underwear thefts ranging from garden-variety Laundromat pilfering to "Silence of the Lambs"-type stuff. Skivvy busts turn up everything from pornography to collections of human hair.

-- A year ago, a 31-year-old Kent man was convicted of three counts of burglary for breaking into apartment-complex laundry rooms and stealing women's underwear and leaving feces behind. He is also suspected of starting a string of fires in and near them. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

-- A bust in Bellevue in 1991 turned up 240 pairs of women's underwear stuffed in grocery bags and under the mattress of the thief: a 17-year-old Bellevue teen. The boy was arrested and charged with multiple counts of burglary with sexual motivation. He served two years in juvenile detention.

But these are small success stories, part of a handful of the felony cases that actually get to court each year.

Feb. 22: Another panty thief strikes on the Eastside. The Seattle Times runs this item:

700 block, 20th Avenue West - A woman reported that someone broke into her house and stole 12 pairs of nylons and 12 pairs of panties from her bedroom, leaving items such as watches and jewelry untouched.

When I call the victim, a single parent who lives in Kirkland, she told me she'd just finished putting new deadbolts on all her doors because the burglar was still at large.

Though she had been burglarized before, this one left her particularly angry and violated.

She was reluctant to report it to the police, at first not wanting to admit that a stranger had pawed her drawers.

However, the incident is being investigated like any burglary, said Capt. Jon Hartley, acting chief of the Kirkland Police Department.

"It could be somebody they know, even remotely; it could be someone who's watching them. I don't think it often is totally random," he said.

Bellevue Police Detective Bob Thompson agreed.

The three men he arrested over the past few years for stealing women's underwear were all watching their victims and returned to the scene of their crimes. He caught them using hidden cameras installed in the women's homes.

Despite all this, I didn't file a report with the Seattle PD. I simply began eyeing everyone in my apartment building.

While stealing women's underwear is in the background of many major sex offenders and is pretty much exclusively a male activity, there's no clear pattern of escalation, says Maureen Saylor, a forensic therapist who specializes in treating sex offenders at Western State Hospital.

Whether or not thieves move from stealing women's underwear to physical attack depends on the man. And to determine the likelihood, Saylor said she'd have to know such things as whether or not the thief breaks into apartments or pilfers from Laundromats. Does he target or stalk one person? How long has he been doing it? She'd even need to know what the guy fantasizes about.

Psychiatry classifies underwear thefts as a fetish - sexual arousal by objects. The classics are women's shoes and women's underwear. And while such fetishes used to be regarded as singular eccentric behavior that was simply a nuisance, that is changing.

A major study of paraphilias (psychiatric lingo for sexual disorders characterized by sexual arousal from objects or abnormal situations like molesting children) provides strong evidence that men who engage in fetishes are likely to engage in other more dangerous activities.

The results of the 8-year study involving 561 men receiving treatment for possible paraphilia were published a few years ago in The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

The upshot is that men with sex disorders don't focus on one, and only one, activity. If you find an exhibitionist, chances are about 50-50 the guy has molested children. Half of the men who reported fetishes had also molested little girls. A quarter of them raped women. A conclusion of the study:

"Some professionals have considered exhibitionists, voyeurs and fetishists as being rather benign, nuisance paraphiliacs. These results, however, suggest that some (but not all) of the benign paraphilias may actually lead to very aggressive behaviors and should not be viewed as reliably benign."

The difficulty tracking these crimes, says Mark Fisher, a detective in the King County Police Sexual Assault Unit, is that they largely go unreported. When they are reported, they are typically written up as misdemeanor, generic property crimes. Even if the theft occurs during a burglary - bumping the crime up to a felony - it isn't necessarily declared a sex offense.

"People under-report underwear theft just like they do exposing incidents and obscene phones calls, not realizing that all these men can be rapists," said Lt. Gail Marsh of the Redmond Police Department.

Marsh, who runs free personal-safety classes for women, said a good number of the women who have taken her class have had their underwear stolen. In none of the cases did the women file a report, she said.

"It's extremely embarrassing (to file a report)," she said, adding that women often write the thefts off by saying: "Anyone who's stupid enough to steal my underwear, they can just have it.'

"That's the worst part of educating other women to the seriousness of it," she said. "More women will laugh and make fun of them and not realize the seriousness of the offender. I don't think we know we're in that kind of danger . . . you don't want to acknowledge that kind of threat."