TAMPA — The thin, hoodie-clad thief slinks up the front stairs and onto the porch of the South Tampa home. It's dark and the house is dripping with blinking white Christmas lights. The intruder picks up a life-sized elf statue standing sentry near the front door, turns and walks away.
'Tis the season for giving, but also for taking, and it's not just packages.
Holiday decorations sprouting from lawns and porches make easy targets for thieves who are inexplicably compelled to make off with manifestations of holiday cheer. But with the ubiquity of surveillance cameras, crimes like last Wednesday's elf-napping on the 500 block of S Oregon Avenue are often captured on video, and law enforcement agencies are happy to push the evidence out on social media platforms.
That's what the Tampa Police Department did this week after the elf's owners reported the crime and shared the video. By Tuesday afternoon, the video had been viewed some 12,000 times on the department's Facebook page.
"It’s easy enough for me to post the video on social media, and we’re happy to do so to send a message of deterrence to porch pirates," police spokesman Steve Hegarty said. "If the social media posting results in some promising tips, we will follow up on them."
Stealing or vandalizing holiday decorations usually amounts to a petty crime in terms of dollar amounts but can be more galling to some people than, say, a stolen bike or weed whacker. The internet is replete with stories of people who say they have lost all faith in humanity after someone pilfered their illuminated reindeer or inflatable Santa Claus.
That's because Americans imbue holiday decorations with a deeper meaning related to nostalgia and the giving spirit of the season, said Dell de Chant, a master professor and associate chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida and author of The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture.
Though holiday decorations are often treated as sacred because they are associated with religion, even inflatable snow globes are sacred objects in America's culture of giving and consuming that goes into overdrive during the holidays, de Chant said.
"It's a deeper kind of offense, a deeper kind of violation than routine theft," he said. "It's a sacrilege. You shall not take the Christmas elf, you shall not kick the plastic reindeer. It's humorous at one level but it also tells us at a deeper level about our culture, what's important to us and what's sacred to us."
One family in Kansas City who had four inflatable decorations swiped last year took down the rest of their decorations and replaced them with a small sign draped in shiny red garland: "Merry Christmas. Our decorations were stolen!" A homeowner in San Antonio, Texas whose surveillance camera captured a man nabbing a 16-foot long animated inflatable line of reindeer, printed large photos of the thief in the act and posted them in the yard along with a projector playing the surveillance video. He called it "our new, Grinch-themed Christmas."
The owners of the Oregon Avenue home, who asked the Times not to identify them, posted the video of the elf thief on their own Facebook pages. One owner wrote she was "saddened" and "violated."
"It’s Christmas!!!!" she wrote on the post. "I will not let this selfish thief dampen my holiday spirit."
It appears the thief is flirting with a felony: Based on a photo the owners shared with Tampa police, the elf appears to be a 36-inch tall Kringle Express model with a retail price of $218 on QVC. Stealing something with a dollar value of more than $300 is felony grand theft in Florida.
But the value of the property isn't the main factor, said police spokesman Janelle McGregor, who posted a "Be On The Lookout'' notice on Nextdoor along with a photo of a similar elf statue.
"The bottom line is you can't walk onto someone's property and just take something," McGregor said. "It will definitely get you on the naughty list and on the Tampa Police Department's radar."
If you have information on the elf thief, call Crime Stoppers at (800) 873-8477 or report anonymously online at crimestopperstb.com. Tipsters could be eligible for a reward of up to $3,000.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.