Elderly widower loses cherished memento in latest distraction theft

Doug Drew, 85, was enjoying the sun on his front lawn this past Mother's Day when two women plying him with cheap jewelry took a precious memento — a gold necklace honouring his granddaughter, who died at 13 years old, and his late wife — right off his neck.

'I forgot the old adage, 'beware of strangers bearing gifts,'' victim says

A precious pendant belonging to 85-year-old Doug Drew was stolen off his neck this past Sunday, and Ottawa police say it's one of a growing number of reported thefts by distraction. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Doug Drew, 85, was enjoying the sun on his front lawn this past Mother's Day when two women plying him with cheap jewelry took a precious memento — a gold necklace honouring his granddaughter, who died at 13 years old, and his late wife — right off his neck.

The incident is one of a rash of "distraction thefts" over the past month that Ottawa police are warning the public about.

There are many versions of the scam, but in recent cases strangers working in concert typically offer the victim some low-value jewelry or trinket, and capitalize on the moment of distraction to steal something of greater value.

And, as in Drew's case, the thieves frequently target the elderly and vulnerable, and often in broad daylight.

"I forgot the old adage, 'beware of strangers bearing gifts,'" Drew said in an interview this week.

Drew and his late wife, Bev, were some of the first residents to move into a then-new subdivision on Navaho Drive in 1959. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Thieves tried to give him jewelry, called it 'tradition'

It all began when the driver of a black SUV pulled up alongside Drew's curb in Nepean and beckoned him to come over.

Drew requires supplemental oxygen, and a long plastic supply hose keeps him tethered to the device inside his home. So, thinking the woman in the SUV needed directions, he explained his oxygen supply line wouldn't reach her vehicle, and invited her onto his lawn instead.

"She came up, pressed a gold ring into my hand, along with a gold chain," Drew recalled, adding that she spoke with a heavy European accent. "To honour my father, it is tradition. Please take it," he said she told him.

When Drew politely protested, a younger teenaged accomplice — Drew guessed her to be the first woman's daughter — stepped out of the vehicle and walked up to them.

"She joined the chant of, 'Oh, it's tradition, Please take it,'" Drew said.

When Drew's 13-year-old granddaughter Melissa died of leukemia years ago, he had a memorial pendant made that also honoured his late wife. (Stu Mills/CBC)

'She even gave me a kiss'

Then, while the younger woman immobilized his right arm by wrapping it up in another gold chain, the older woman retreated behind him to place a third strand around his neck, all while thanking Drew for the privilege of allowing her to keep the tradition alive.

"She even gave me a kiss on the cheek," he said.

And then they were gone.

Bemused, the elderly man spent the next 10 minutes disentangling himself from what turned out to be dollar store costume chains.

Then, the widower discovered what really happened.

Shortly after 85-year-old Doug Drew was approached by two women while sitting in his front yard, he realized he had been robbed of a treasured pendant. 1:30

'Looked at it as my wife cradling her granddaughter'

When his 13-year-old granddaughter Melissa lost her battle with leukemia years ago, Doug Drew's life was shattered. Heartbroken, he responded with an act of personal, heartfelt creativity.

Drew took an inexpensive lapel pin of a guardian angel embracing a baby to a local jeweler, where goldsmiths made a mould of the angel. Then they took his late wife Bev's engagement ring, melted it down, and turned it into an angel pendant using the mould taken from the pin.

"I always looked at it as my wife cradling her granddaughter," he said, his eyes filling with tears.

Until it was stolen from him on Sunday, Drew had worn the memento on a chain around his neck every day for the past 16 years. The unique, personalized creation cost him $450 in 2002, but its loss has cost him an emotional fortune.

'They're gone now'

"Here I thought Melissa was safe in the arms of her grandmother," he said. "And they're gone now."

Drew and his wife moved into their then-new Navaho Drive home in 1959, when the roads were still made of mud and most of the land around it was a farmer's pasture.

The theft hasn't changed his feelings about the neighbourhood, developed over nearly 60 years of living there. Apart from the death of his wife, he calls his front-yard mugging-by-distraction the worst thing to happen since he moved in.

"It's a good neighbourhood," he said.

Doug had a jeweler make a mould of a guardian angel lapel pin, and recast it with gold from his late wife's engagement ring. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Police seeing more distraction thefts

Ottawa police say catching the culprits and recovering what was taken will be difficult.

"It's very difficult. It's not a very structured kind of theft; this can be done anywhere," said Const. Chuck Benoit, a police spokesperson. One team could work in Montreal one day, Toronto the next, and then move onto Ottawa-Gatineau.

The incident involving Drew was the fifth theft by distraction reported to Ottawa police in recent weeks, including a very similar case just a week prior on nearby Maitland Avenue.

"There's an article that's attractive, and these people are using this item to distract you for the short period of time needed to make a theft," Benoit said.

The other factor is the increased vulnerability in public places, where people tend to let down their guard because they assume places like front yards are safe.

Typically, the victim is unaware they've been robbed until it's too late.

"We're seeing more of these thefts, with an older crowd being victims," Benoit said.