'Spiderman' claims heists are tall story

THEY CALL him "Spiderman", a cat burglar who has become something of a folk hero within the Florida crooks' community. He has, they say, climbed as high as 30 floors up skycraper apartment blocks, from balcony to balcony, using only his strength, agility and Ninja-style boots.

But is his real name Derrick James, a 33-year-old former paratrooper with the United States 82nd Airborne Division? Police say it is. Mr James denies it. But he is on trial in Miami this week for one of the 132 robberies police attribute to "Spiderman".

If convicted, police believe they may be able to pin on him many of the other high-rise robberies, usually jewellery and credit cards taken from the upper floors of apartments along Miami Beach's so-called "Condo Canyon".

Police suspect him of a jewellery heist on the 10th floor of my own building. I live on the seventh. A couple of months ago, police came to my door and asked to look at my balcony. They showed me what they said were footprints suggesting "Spiderman" had passed through on his way up. I had my doubts. I'd been home at the time, with my balcony door open. And it looked impossible to bridge the six-foot gap from my balcony railing to the gripless concrete above without climbing equipment.

"It's outrageous. Nobody could do what they're saying," Mr James told reporters who visited him in jail. "I'm not the Spiderman and I don't know who he is." He rolled up his prison overalls sleeves to show normal biceps. For the sake of fairness, his trial judge has barred the use of the word "Spiderman" in the courtroom.

At the trial yesterday, a Miami pawnbroker testified he believed Mr James was Spiderman. "He once came in to sell me some jewellery. When I asked him why he was limping, he said he'd fallen from a balcony," said Orlando San Miguel. "He came to sell me stuff several times, telling me he got it by climbing from balcony to balcony."

The pawnbroker said that, in return for his testimony, police had promised not to prosecute him for receiving stolen jewellery.

Mr James was charged with the single burglary, from the seventh floor of Miami's Bristol Tower condominium in June, after police saw him in the vicinity and found a stolen laptop computer and $5,000 (pounds 3,080) of jewels in his car. They suspect him of robbing an apartment on the 30th floor of the same building, netting $1m of valuables on another occasion.

Mr James said he earned his living - between $70,000 and $120,000 a year - from gambling on horse races. With several prior convictions, he faces several years in jail if convicted. The trial is expected to conclude in the next few days.

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