March 25, 2009
Jewel thief turns things around in retirement
Former burglar speaks to SUNY Cortland students about past, reforming himself after prison
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
George Feder, once one of America’s most wanted jewel thieves who now uses the knowledge he gained as a criminal for good, speaks on SUNY Cortland campus Tuesday night.
Every so often when George Feder passes by a jewelry store and looks through the window at the merchandise, he cannot help calculating what his take would be if he stole it.
He shrugs off the idea now, but over 30 years ago the temptation would have been too hard to resist.
Feder, 64, who lives in Florida, spent 14 years stealing jewelry from wealthy people there and at other locations around the country.
Captured by police in 1977, he spent about 10 years in the Florida prison system for grand larceny, conspiracy, possession of burglary tools and racketeering charges for importation of cocaine from South America.
Feder said his specialty was breaking into high-rise residences in broad daylight, simply by picking the lock.
Feder spoke to SUNY Cortland students Tuesday about his criminal career and the path he took after realizing prison was a place he never wanted to visit again.
“Very little is done in prison to rehabilitate people,” he said. “What it did was get me in great physical shape.”
Feder said he accumulated about $15 million during his criminal career, averaging about $1 million annually from jewelry thefts alone.
When anyone asked about his finances, he said he was “in real estate.”
In prison, the Internal Revenue Service seized Feder’s finances and paid off what he owed to victims.
Today Feder works as a security and criminal consultant for law enforcement officials around the country and has appeared on TV on America’s Most Wanted offering his expertise about criminal behavior.
He has worked as a crime prevention consultant for 12 years, speaking about how to properly protect homes from thieves, which he said is primarily how he earns his living.
Stuart Traub, a SUNY Cortland professor of criminology, grew up with Feder and asked him to speak with students.
Traub said his goal was to expose students to what really goes on in the criminal world. Students packed Brockway Hall’s Jacobus Lounge to listen as Feder described his experiences.
Feder said prison was a wake-up call for him to change his life, but he found his burglary habits quickly replaced by alcohol.
He became an alcoholic and enrolled in the 12-Step Program in Florida, eventually reforming himself.
Overcoming his obsession for stealing proved difficult because of how good it felt, he said.
“I became invincible mentally,” Feder said. “I was probably calmer committing that type of burglary than going to a movie.”
He said he sold the merchandise to jewelry dealers, Hollywood movie stars and executives, members of organized crime, as well as many others. Other criminals often recommended buyers to him.
When asked if he could name some of his buyers, Feder smiled and said he would not identify them.
Feder never carried a weapon or spent more than five minutes inside a residence during a break-in.
“I didn’t want to kill anybody,” Feder said.
Should anyone catch him inside, he said he would often have a story ready. Sometimes he would be disguised as a construction or maintenance worker.
“It was about the rush for me, I enjoyed it,” he said.
He evaded capture by not bragging about his thefts and spending money cautiously. Police began tracking him after a witness saw him try to break into a high-rise residence.
He said the secret to his success was portraying himself convincingly, adding people would believe whatever they wanted to see.
Growing up in Queens gave Feder his first glimpse at the temptations offered by organized crime. He idolized a local mafia figure, whom he would only identify as “Benny.”
His mafia contacts taught him about lock picking, and he learned various other tricks over the years.
“What put me on this path was me,” Feder said. “It looked good to a young, stupid kid.”
Feder’s first theft was stealing jewelry from an apartment in his Queens neighborhood. He was 16 years old.
He gained recognition by networking with mafia contacts he made while growing up, paying them percentages of the profits he made.
Feder believes now prison is not the best solution and advocates for spending on rehabilitation programs for inmates.
Most people resort to burglary and stealing out of desperation, he said. This is especially true of inmates who return to society and cannot find a job to feed their families.
“Not all people, but some, have to resort to doing whatever they have to do,” Feder said. “And not even many clean people can get jobs today.”
He told students expensive home security systems such as those through ADT are not the best approach to keeping a home safe.
“A real thief would just cut the phone line,” Feder said.
A $15 door alarm that gives off a loud noise would be much more effective and probably keep a thief away because it attracts attention, he said.
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