1984: How, and why, did somebody steal Mifflin Street?

Mifflin Street after theft of Belgian blocks.

This series, Crooks, tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. See below for how to access these archives for yourself.

In broad daylight on Nov. 12, 1984, amid the typical hustle and bustle of riverfront warehouses, a small crew of workmen pulled onto a tucked-away South Philadelphia street in a demolition machine.

Truckers and policemen drove by and nodded, assuming that the guys digging up gray-stoned Mifflin Street with a front-end loader were municipal workers.

A nearby shop owner thought the same. But as he watched them work, he developed an uneasy feeling, and then couldn’t shake a troubling thought: Why were these men being so cautious with the stones, yet so reckless with the earth below them?

So he walked over and asked.

Joseph Monkiewicz, an excavator from Montgomery County, told the shop owner that he and his employees were tearing up the old surface so they could lay down a new one.

The shop owner surveyed the damage and returned to his office, suspicious and puzzled.

Seriously, who steals a street?

Street crime

The first block of little East Mifflin Street was one of a few with a signature in that desolate area near the docks.

The alley-like strip, split by rusty railroad tracks just off Delaware Avenue, was built of big Belgian blocks, cursed by motorists and adored by pedestrians.

The paving blocks, made from ballast torn out of empty cargo ships, were laid in the mid-1800s.

How the street caught the eye of Monkiewicz, owner of a demolition company in suburban Glenside, is a mystery. But his motivations were clear.

Monkiewicz was broke.

The plan was to dig up the stones, stash them at a nearby lot on Oregon Avenue, and truck them in shifts to sell to a North Jersey salvage yard.

For transportation, he hired Gustav Propper, a waste hauler from Northeast Philadelphia with a criminal record. In the 1970s,  Propper served a jail term for dumping explosive chemicals into a Bensalem Township sewer, and was fined $25 for discarding slime into Pennypack Creek. For a while, he also owned a Bensalem-based demolition firm that in 1974 knocked down a house in Northern Liberties and killed a woman in the house next door.

All told, Monkiewicz’s crew ripped up 16,300 pavers before the shopkeeper finally called the city, which called in the police.

The stones were worth about $4 a pop, but Monkiewicz sold them for $1 each. The entire haul was worth more than $65,000. (In 2016, it translates to about $150,000.)

Investigators, suspecting a sophomoric prank, were shocked when they arrived at the scene and found “a giant dirt hole.” Only tire treads and about 40 feet of the paving blocks remained.

The pockmarked earth looked more like a dried-out riverbed than a former city street.

Roadblocks

Investigators raided the vacant lot on Oregon Avenue, and found a man who said he was paid $500 to watch the loot between trips. After gathering further information, police found and arrested 35-year-old Monkiewicz and 49-year-old Propper.

The city only recovered about 4,000 blocks from the salvage yard, which claimed no knowledge of the theft. While Monkiewicz did not provide any interviews, the Inquirer noted that the salvage yard often sold to New York developers, speculating that Mifflin Street ended up spread out across the patios of Long Island.

Three years later, Propper was acquitted of all charges. He maintained he wasn't told the blocks were stolen. That same year, Monkiewicz pleaded guilty to theft and conspiracy, but Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas Watkins offered him a deal: two years' probation if he repaved the street.

Immediately, though, he hit roadblocks.

First, the city didn't trust him to do the job. So Monkiewicz hired a subcontractor, which cost him about $20,000. Then, they ran into cold weather -- apparently, it has to be at least 40 degrees to pave a street.

Once, the subcontractor brought in equipment, graded the block, and prepared for the pouring of blacktop. And then a water main broke, flooding the street.

Later, Monkiewicz got a taste of his own medicine: Someone had dug a new hole.

"I found the street dug up," Monkiewicz told the court. "There was a big, deep hole in the street."

The kicker: The city couldn’t figure out if real municipal workers were responsible for the new hole.

Monkiewicz’s defense attorney wrote a letter to the city asking for an explanation, but the city didn’t have an answer.

Watkins couldn't understand how the city didn’t know whether its own employees were working on Mifflin Street -- a path that the city contended "was a historical, valuable part of our city."

Confounded, Watkins added: “Mr. Monkiewicz apparently brought this to their attention!”


About this Series:
Using the digital archives of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Crooks tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. *Search the archives for yourself and subscribe for full access.*