Break-in All the Rules: Confessions of a Rosedale Burglar

A reformed ex-con reveals the tricks of his trade and teaches us to match wits with robbers before they strike

Reading a home is something of an art form. Keith Matthews (not his real name) gestures at a large brick home on a snowy neighbourhood street with the blinds pulled partially back. “You can tell no one’s in there,” he says. “You see the living room on the right-hand side, the kitchen area on this side. They do have the laundry going, so they’re going to be back soon. You can see the exhaust on the side. That’s their laundry.” He points to the side door, which is obscured from view by a row of cedar trees, as his likely point of entry.

When Matthews turns 40 this year, he will have spent exactly half of his life behind bars. Among his crimes are over 300 break and enters in the GTA, in many of the city’s wealthiest and most fortified areas, Rosedale, Forest Hill, Lawrence Park and Bayview among them, where both risk and reward are highest.

Matthews grew up in an apartment building in Scarborough, his mother a corporate vice-president and his father a maintenance worker. He did his first line of cocaine at age 11, supplied by an adult neighbour a few floors down. By his mid- 20s, he was ingesting over $5,000 worth of cocaine a day and burglarizing houses across Toronto to support his addiction. He says he has stolen well over a million dollars in cash and other goods over the course of his career.

Matthews is out on parole now and is working on reconnecting with his daughters. He’s a new grandfather and hopes that by opening up about his past he can help right his wrongs.

“I don’t like bragging about what I did, but to notify the community, you know, if I can help in any way, shape or form to help a homeowner not be vandalized or victimized any more, right? These are the certain steps you need to take,” he says.

But it’s a tough time to be out of the game. As the price of gold continues to skyrocket, the business of break and enters is becoming an increasingly lucrative enterprise.

“Today, you’re probably paying 10 bucks a gram for 10 karat [gold]. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you’re lucky if you’re paying two bucks, three bucks a gram for 10 karat,” Matthews says. “As we speak right now, there’s multiple houses being broken into, all over the GTA. Drugs are becoming a lot bigger problem in Toronto, so you got crackheads and people who are just fiending for their next hit. And they’ll do anything.”

Gold was always easiest to fence, he says, because once it’s melted it’s untraceable. “You go to certain places downtown, pawn shops and that. They don’t care about ID. They’ve got a $30,000 Royal Doulton doll for a hundred bucks. What do they care?” he says.

Some burglars will stake out a house for days, studying the owner’s patterns. Matthews preferred to find out quickly and definitively whether someone was home. “What you do is knock on the door and ask for ‘Fred.’ Make up any name. Bang, bang, bang. Make sure. If someone comes to the door, say, ‘Oh, I was looking for Fred.’ You give them some story. That way you find out if they’re home or not. Then go around to the side,” he says.

Matthews is walking south along Banbury Road in Bayview. He stands about five feet eight inches and is wearing dark wraparound sunglasses and a toque that covers his ears, so only his mouth and nose are exposed. He gets a long look from a resident walking her dog. “See, you’ve got people watching you — ‘What the hell are they doing?’ — right?” he says.

The lunch hour was Matthews’s favourite time to strike. “Moms in these richy areas, they got the nannies who are picking the kids up at school,” he says. “So you got a 15-minute window to get in and out. Especially Forest Hill, the Annex, Rosedale, Davisville, all those areas, they have a lot of hired nannies…. They think, ‘I’m just going to go pick up the kids and not lock every window in the house because I’m going to be back in 15 minutes,’ right? And they don’t think about it because they do the same routine every single day: until they get hit. That’s when they start changing their ways.”

Matthews says he could break into nearly any home in a matter of minutes. Once inside, the first order of business was to find an exit and make sure it was unlocked. Then he would go to the master bedroom and look under the mattress and for good reason: he once found $17,000 in luggage under the bed. Next he would go to the dresser, then the other rooms, before heading back downstairs where he would look for anything in glass cabinets, especially crystal or figurines. Then he’d be out, all in less than two minutes, three minutes tops.

"They do the same routine every single day: until they get hit. That’s when they start changing their ways.”

Commonly a burglar is after something in particular.

“A lot of the time, you come in contact with the person who robbed you, or they’ve been watching your place. Sometimes what people do is they go to those art galleries, and they will watch people, and they will see people buy [something] and then tail them home and stake them out,” he says.

Sometimes Matthews would wear a hard hat and pretend he was in the neighbourhood reading meters. Meanwhile, he’d be surveying the street, looking for the perfect target. Other times, the disguise was legitimate. He used to run a construction company that did a slew of jobs in Forest Hill and Rosedale. Once, he was installing weeping tile for a downspout when he noticed a wall-sized safe in the basement. He stuck a chewing gum–sized piece of C4 on it and tried to blow it up but to no avail. “What we did was make a mess of the basement,” Matthews says. “We put the rug on fire, and I had to put that out. Then we left.”

To get into that basement, Matthews simply removed the windowpane, which is how he would usually get around most windows rigged with alarm contacts. “Make sure the window is inside the frame itself and that it’s not one of those ones where you just put a [windowpane] in and a piece of trim on the outside,” he says. “It’s four finishing nails. Take that off and the whole window pops out.”

For bigger windows and sliding doors, he recommends decorative bars — “when a guy like me sees those windows, you back away because it’s too much bull and garbage” — and tempered glass: “that’s the glass I’d get because you can’t break that.” A skilled burglar can use a pin or a credit card to open up most cheap locks, so a little extra expense can go a long way.

“If you don’t have good locks, you might as well leave your door wide open because that’s what you’re doing,” Matthews says. “Deadbolts are the way to go. If you’re going to lock your home, side door, front door, make sure you put deadbolts. That way you need a key for the inside and the outside. It might be a pain to have to unlock your door like that, but at least you have a secondary lock below it.”

Surprisingly often, though, homeowners leave their doors and windows unlocked. Especially condo owners, Matthews says, who assume they’re so high up that they don’t think it’s necessary. Matthews once climbed up to a 15th floor balcony to rob a jeweller he had followed home from his store, then walked in the unlocked balcony door and helped himself.

When touring a neighbourhood, Matthews says a burglar is looking for a house that offers sufficient cover. Avoid planting thick bushes close to the house, and install sensor lights high enough that a burglar can’t easily unscrew the bulbs.

One of his first hits was on Dawlish Avenue in Lawrence Park, which fronts onto Blythwood Ravine. “All these places that back onto a park or ravine or a school, these are the best targets because you got no one on [one] side to worry about,” Matthews says.

The signs of easy entry are everywhere: one just has to learn what to look for. Faded alarm stickers, he says, indicate there’s really no alarm system at all, so be sure to keep them f resh. Old storm doors will break under the force of a strong shoulder, so make sure your doors are solid hardwood. Sliding doors are especially easy to break into, so install a metal riser along the bottom (“it’s like a metal bracket with a hook in it”).

Motion detectors need to be carefully positioned to be effective, and most aren’t. “I can tell you about motion detectors. They are garbage, absolute garbage. I can beat every one that’s out there,” Matthews says. Most of them don’t scan the foot and a half closest to the floor, so he would crawl on his stomach and pass by undetected. If he saw the monitor go red, he would lie still until it turned back to green. So make sure your detectors are aimed at the floor and position one at the foot of the stairs, which will keep the burglar to just one floor, he says.

But for all the technology we use to keep us safe, sometimes the best deterrent is a watchful community.

“Be aware of your neighbourhood. Who’s coming and who’s going, what’s normal traffic,” Matthews says. “You have to keep an eye out. Even if you don’t like your neighbours, just put yourself in their shoes if the place got broken into. You know what I mean?”

When conventional means of entry aren’t available, a motivated burglar will get creative. One time, Matthews entered a house through the skylight. As he was lowering himself down, a piece of glass caught him on the forehead, and blood spilled everywhere. “By that time the alarm is going off. I had no time to clean up, I had to take off,” he says.

The police then had his DNA and used it to link him to an additional series of break and enters. Today, the guilt of his actions still weighs on him.

“When you’re walking through somebody’s home, you’re looking at pictures and stuff like that, and you’re thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Your home is your place. That’s your safe place. It shouldn’t be a place where you have to worry.’ I feel bad. I regret doing what I did,” he says. Jail was tough. He saw stabbings. He saw a guy get beaten with a lead pipe. He saw a guy get killed right in front of him. But he kept his head down and tried to stay out of what he calls “the nonsense.” He worked as an electrician, fixing toggle switches and receptacles, and he got his Grade 12 diploma. He even gave musical instruction to the other inmates, teaching guitar tabulature and keyboards. Now that he’s out, he’s trying to set a good example for the granddaughter whose pictures he proudly displays on his cellphone. I ask him if he’s ever tempted to return to his former ways.

“Nah, not no more. I’m done with that lifestyle. I have lived on the good side. I have lived on the bad side. And yes, it gets tough at times, financially and mentally and emotionally and physically, but to have to look over your shoulder all the time … it just stresses you out,” he says. “I’ll be 40 years this year, and it’s just been nothing but a constant headache for my family as well as myself. I know what I’m worth and what I’m capable of doing…. Time for a career change.”

In our March cover story, Break-In All the Rules, Post City Magazines acknowledges the writer and the burglar did visit specific streets in each of the seven neighbourhoods. The burglar in question did commit several robberies in all of these areas. While correct in our North York, Midtown and Bayview editions, Post City Magazines made the mistake of presenting this same street in the North Toronto, Village, Thornhill & Richmond Hill print editions. The writer was not responsible for the error, which was made during production and which we regret.

However, lessons learned from the investigation are valid lessons right across the city regardless of where one lives. The story is no less important and timely for our readers and homeowners across Toronto.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO