LONDON • Cunning gentleman thieves have seduced romantics from the days of Robin Hood through to Hollywood's heyday - and now, London is transfixed by the real-life antics of the "Wimbledon Prowler".
The prolific burglar is suspected of carrying out hundreds of break-ins around one of London's most exclusive neighbourhoods, making off with assets worth more than £10 million (S$19 million).
The quaint, upscale neighbourhood of Wimbledon Village in the British capital's smart south-west is sheltered from the hustle of city life, and known mainly for its famous tennis tournament and multimillion-pound mansions.
But fear now stalks the leafy streets in the form of the "Wimbledon Prowler", as the light-fingered criminal has been nicknamed by the British press. In a decade of deception, the thief has committed more than 200 burglaries, making a mockery of locks, alarms and security camera systems to pilfer luxury watches, jewellery and cash, Detective Inspector Dan O'Sullivan said.
The intruder's high-profile targets have included German tennis legend Boris Becker, and French former Real Madrid and Arsenal footballer Nicolas Anelka, who chased the burglar from his house. The burglar's biggest single trophy is believed to be a 1955 Rolex Submariner watch valued at around £500,000.
"In the UK, there is no one that gets close to him, in terms of the period of time that he's been offending, and the financial gain," said Insp O'Sullivan.
Starved of solid leads, Scotland Yard launched an appeal for witnesses last month after a particularly productive period for the burglar between last September and early this year, with three to four break-ins committed per week.
"When you look back at the history of the last 10 years, that is what he seems to do," Insp O'Sullivan said.
"He seems to smash 20 to 30 jobs over a couple of months, and then he seems to go to ground."
From the scant evidence, the police believe the crook is a man aged around 35, of medium height and is described as athletic, agile, organised, disciplined, and likely knowledgeable about police investigation techniques. The thief leaves no evidence behind and is aware of the location of surveillance cameras, hiding his face with his hand.
Insp O'Sullivan did not rule out the possibility that the hunted man could be a former soldier, given his self-control and attention to detail. He believes that the felon is motivated by more than just money, saying the burglar was probably seduced by the "kick, the thrill of doing it".
"This individual seems to be one of the 10 per cent of burglars who plan a crime," said retired policeman Calvin Beckford, who now operates The Crime Prevention Website, the largest open-source online resource of its kind in Europe.
"This guy is clearly very cautious, is security-aware, and spends time making observations, minimising his chances of being seen and detected," Mr Beckford added.