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Friday, June 1, 2007 | Justin Clarke admits to a lot of things.

He admits to using stolen credit cards to finance a lavish party lifestyle. He admits to driving stolen BMWs, to snorting cocaine and to high-speed chases with police cars. Clarke even admits he planned and succeeded in breaking out of jail.

Doing Hard Time?

  • The Issue: Justin Clarke, a 26-year-old San Diegan, is in jail facing 48 felony counts. His charges include more than 30 burglaries, possession of cocaine, assault with a deadly weapon and escaping from jail. He denies committing the burglaries, but admits to almost everything else.
  • What It Means: Clarke potentially faces 40 to 50 years in prison if he is convicted of all counts. If he convinces a jury that he did not commit the residential burglaries, his sentence could be substantially shorter.
  • The Bigger Picture: Clarke’s trial begins July 16.

But Clarke doesn’t admit one charge against him: That he’s an infamous northern San Diego hot-prowl burglar who, in a crime spree that lasted several months last year, burglarized at least 19 homes and 16 businesses and stole cash, credit cards, jewelry and cars as residents slept or watched television.

On at least one occasion, that burglar slunk into a room where residents were sleeping and stole possessions a few feet from where the couple lay.

Clarke swears he did not commit the burglaries. But he was caught on camera using many of the credit cards that were stolen and a prosecutor said his fingerprints were found in a BMW that was stolen in one of the residential burglaries. Clarke says he got the credit cards, and the car, from the real burglar — a man he refuses to identify and said he knows only vaguely.

Now, the 26-year-old stands accused of a litany of charges — 48 in all — that include residential and commercial burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, possession for sale of cocaine, and escaping from jail.

The whirlwind of events that took Clarke from dance floor to lockdown, pieced together through interviews and court documents, reads like a Dostoevsky tragedy. It is a story of a fall from riches to desperation, of a man cut down in the prime of his life by his own greed and recklessness.

♦♦♦

A few months ago, Justin Clarke was living the high life.

On weekend nights, the young nightclub promoter would swing through some of downtown San Diego’s swankiest clubs, swapping greetings with the princes and princesses of the party scene. He and his drinking companions would, he said, sometimes blow $10,000 at the bar in 15 minutes.

It was during one such wild night, in early 2006, that Clarke said he bought his first stolen credit card, from a guy he met at a house party.

The man wasn’t a close friend, he said, but had come looking for Clarke to buy some cocaine and had offered him a stolen plasma-screen television. Clarke bought the television, and swapped cell phone numbers with the man.

About two weeks later, Clarke said, the man called him and offered him a stolen credit card. Clarke said he bought the card for $100. He said he was initially terrified to use the card, and only used it in gas stations to fill up his car.

Clarke soon gained confidence, however, and found that he could use the stolen credit cards in Target stores without needing to show any identification. He said he began to use the cards to buy toiletries, groceries and things for his home. But then he found a way to generate cash from the cards.

Microsoft had recently released the Xbox 360, a highly sought-after video game console. The consoles were selling for about $400 in Target at the time and Clarke began to buy as many as he could get his hands on. He sold the consoles to friends and acquaintances for $300, more if he included some games.

Sometimes, Clarke said, he would hit four Targets in one day and buy Xbox 360s and games at all of them.

“Everyone wanted one,” he said. “At one point I had about 50 people who all wanted to buy an Xbox from me.”

Clarke said he began buying the stolen credit cards from his acquaintance on a regular basis. He always paid $100 for each card, he said, and often bought more than one at a time, sometimes buying five cards for $500.

The money generated from the stolen Xboxes and other electronics eventually turned into a substantial supplemental income, Clarke said. It allowed him to fund his lavish party lifestyle. But friends and people who knew Clarke were often dubious about where the young man got his seemingly endless supplies of cash.

“He was definitely part of the scene,” said Beau Anderson, co-owner of 3D Entertainment, a San Diego nightclub and events-promotion company, who knew Clarke when he was working in nightclub promotion downtown. “He was always trying to flash as much money as he could and he would show up driving a BMW 7-Series and wearing the most expensive watches.”

Along with the party lifestyle came the drugs, Clarke said. Like his taste in cars and clothes, Clarke’s taste for drugs was expensive. He started taking cocaine but only, he said, on a recreational basis. He was never addicted, he said.

But it was a few grains of cocaine that would eventually entrap Clarke and start him on his slippery slope into chaos.

♦♦♦

On June 26, Clarke was drinking in the Tavern nightclub in Pacific Beach with a friend. A few weeks before, he had been in the same nightclub and had used a stolen credit card to pay his bar tab, leaving a customarily excessive tip. He said he thinks the bartender recognized him, and called the police when he again tried to use a stolen credit card to pay his bar tab.

When the police arrived, they searched Clarke and found a vial of cocaine in his pocket. They also found credit cards that had allegedly been stolen in a recent burglary. Clarke was charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of stolen property and, because he had entered the nightclub with the stolen cards, burglary.

He was in jail for a few hours before a friend paid his $5,000 bail.

But Clarke missed his court date. He was rearrested and the same friend paid his $50,000 bail. Clarke then fell out with that friend, and again failed to show up in court, opting instead to leave town for a while. The bail bond agency sent bounty hunters after him, and on Nov. 2 he was again arrested and put in the South Bay Detention Facility in Chula Vista.

This time, there was no friend to bail him out, and Clarke was about to get a big shock.

♦♦♦

While he was sitting in Chula Vista awaiting a court appearance for his possession charges, a San Diego Police Department detective was busy trying to find out who was committing the hot prowl burglaries in northeastern San Diego.

Whoever was burglarizing the homes had not left a shred of DNA evidence or a single fingerprint behind, said Sophia Roach, the deputy district attorney who is prosecuting Clarke, but the police had traced the stolen credit cards to Target stores. They had also managed to pull up good-quality images from the company’s security cameras.

“We had a face, but we had no idea who this guy was,” said Monica Munoz, an SDPD spokeswoman.

On Nov. 6, the SDPD put out a press release with the photographs of a tall, athletic blond male leaving a Target store after using a stolen credit card. Several television stations ran the pictures.

Munoz said that within minutes, police received a number of calls identifying Clarke as the man in the photographs. They soon discovered that their prime suspect for the burglaries was already in custody.

Then, on Nov. 14, Roach said, a San Diego detective searched Clarke’s downtown apartment. This time, Roach said, the detective found Clarke’s room strewn with women’s underwear and empty jewelry boxes, which they allege had been stolen. They also found 51 grams of cocaine.

Clarke said the women’s underwear was actually his roommate’s bikinis, which he had just washed along with his own beachwear, and that the jewelry boxes were his own. None of them had been stolen in burglaries, he said. Clarke didn’t want to talk about the cocaine.

On Dec. 12, Roach requested a bail review for Clarke. His bail was increased to $300,000.

Clarke said that court appearance was the very first time he ever heard about the burglary charges — charges that he said he didn’t even know existed.

He said he entered the courtroom confident that he would only be serving a few months in jail for the possession charges. He left feeling sick, his legs hardly able to support him.

“My lawyer just pointed to this big pile of paper and said ‘It doesn’t look good. They’re charging you with 43 more felony counts,’” he said.

Suddenly, Clarke faced spending the rest of his life in prison.

♦♦♦

Back at the South Bay Detention Center, Clarke initially remained a low-risk inmate. He had been working for some time in the jail’s kitchen as an inmate worker and said he had figured out a way he could escape the facility.

Some time in the early morning of Dec. 13, when it was still dark outside, Clarke escaped from jail.

Clarke wouldn’t go into details about how he escaped. The facility’s top official, Lt. Michelle Skoglund, said she could not discuss the incident for security reasons.

After getting out of the facility, Clarke found himself in downtown Chula Vista dressed in his prison garb. He said he knew the area well as he attended Hilltop High School, which is little more than a mile away from the jail. His head spinning, Clarke said he simply ran away from the jail and into a residential neighborhood, desperately looking for somewhere to hide.

Clarke said he hid for a few hours behind some dumpsters in an alleyway. As he sat on the ground, shivering in his prison T-shirt, the young fugitive contemplated his chances. He thought about getting to Mexico and then trying to escape to South America. If he could get to a phone, he thought, he would be OK. If he could get some money, he would be fine. Most of all, however, he said he was simply scared.

“I didn’t even have a plan, I was just dizzy and terrified,” he said.

After a couple of hours at large, Clarke decided his hiding place was a bad one. He decided to slip into the back yard of a house. From there, he found a way into the house’s garage. In doing so, he committed a burglary.

Inside the garage, Clarke found a motorboat with a cover on it. He scrambled underneath the cover, into the boat, and said he found a T-shirt, which he quickly swapped for his prison-issue shirt.

Roach said the homeowner of the house Clarke had entered heard noises coming from her garage. Opening the door of the garage, she saw something moving under the boat cover and called the police, Roach said.

Under the boat cover, in the gloom, Clarke soon heard police radios. Panicking, he crawled out of his hiding place and ran back out into the backyard, where the noise of radios was even louder.

Desperate, he ran out into the now-sunlit street. He had only gone a few paces when he saw the police officers. He dropped to his knees and surrendered. He had been free for about four and a half hours.

♦♦♦

Back in jail, Clarke said his world collapsed around him. On top of the more than 40 counts he already had against him, Clarke was now charged with escaping while confined for a felony and residential burglary.

“I was devastated,” he said. “I don’t know what else I can say, I was just devastated.”

Almost immediately, Clarke was transferred to the San Diego Central Jail, where he was dressed in the green coveralls that mark high-risk inmates. He was placed in a one-man cell in a high-security section of the jail. Nobody has ever escaped from the Central Jail.

The interview room of the San Diego Central Jail is a stark place. The whitewashed walls bounce fluorescent light against a two-inch thick plate-glass window. Five round stools sit in front of interview telephones that lie discarded on the bare steel counter.

The window panes bear the smudges of the countless men and women who have pushed their faces against the glass, trying to get closer to their loved ones. Scores of ghostly faces marked the glass, filtering Clarke’s facial expressions and mannerisms as he told the story of the 12 months that ruined his life.

These days, Clarke’s life consists mainly of reading. He devours newspapers and John Grisham novels. He said he wakes up early to watch the news on television when the other inmates are sleeping. Clean-cut and well-spoken, he said he doesn’t fit in with the gang members, killers and muggers around him in the high-security section of his floor of the jail.

Of course, he said, he thinks about his case. He also thinks about the credit cards and the BMWs and the Xboxes and the clubs. He thinks about the thousands of dollars he spent in clubs and bars, of the 50-person strong groups of partiers he used to lead to nightclubs like the pied piper, and of the beautiful girls he once danced with on the city’s hottest dance floors.

He said he knows he’s going to prison for a long time, but he said the prosecutors will never pin the burglaries on him. Not because he was clever or careful, he said, but simply because he was never in those homes and never stole those possessions. The prosecutors will never find his DNA, he said, because there is none to find. They will never dust his fingerprints because there are none to dust.

“I think I’m the only person in here who really believes, 100 percent, in the system,” he said.

Clarke’s trial begins July 16.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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