Methodical, meticulous research made Dennis M. Niceler a respected South Jersey historian, a twice-published author — and, authorities say, a rather adept after-hours burglar of businesses across the region.
The gentlemanly fellow who gave me a memorable tour of the Egg Harbor City Historical Society last summer is said by police to be the suspect a surveillance video shows wearing a hoodie, a ski mask, and gloves during a 2016 break-in at Giumarello’s Restaurant in Haddon Township.
The helpful volunteer who reorganized the library and built exhibits at the Egg Harbor City Historical Society was arrested after being spotted on the roof of the Laurel Hill Plaza in Gloucester Township just before 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve last year.
Police said Niceler at first hid and then jumped from atop the single-story structure to get away, fracturing his foot.
He was apprehended sporting attire similar to that seen in the Giumarello video, and tools, including wire cutters, screwdrivers, and a crowbar, were found at the scene. Police say he used such tools to gain entry, disable alarms, and deflect security cameras in several dozen other break-ins in which he has since been implicated.
“It seems so out of character. Almost a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing,” said Douglas McVarish, a historian from Collingswood. He got to know Niceler about 10 years ago through local circles of folks proud to call themselves history geeks.
“Dennis is that type of person who knows everything one could possibly know, and is able to answer any question, about certain subjects,” McVarish said. “He is very passionate about history. None of us knew that other side of him.”
Another friend agreed, saying, “Dennis was an indefatigable historical researcher [who apparently] plied his research skills in his secret life.”
Niceler, 56, of Galloway Township, is being held in the Camden County jail and has been charged with 14 break-ins, mostly at mom-and-pop restaurants, taverns, bars, and similarly cash-oriented establishments in suburban towns throughout the county.
The Camden County Prosecutor’s office said no arraignment date has been set. Niceler has not entered a plea, much less, been found guilty of committing the 14 break-ins.
Police said the suspect also has been implicated in more than 50 strikingly similar burglaries since 2013 in communities across South Jersey and as far north as Hazlet, Monmouth County.
“I’ve never seen something like this, where you connect [a suspect] to this number of jobs,” said Gloucester Township Police Lt. Jason Gittens a 21-year police veteran.
The arrest stunned those who knew Niceler in his day job.
“When I heard Dennis had been arrested, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” said Mark Maxwell, president of the Egg Harbor City Historical Society.
Niceler had alluded to a troubled past.
“Dennis once told me, ‘When I was young, I was an idiot,’ ” Maxwell recalled.
In fact, Niceler’s criminal career stretched back nearly three decades — a history of seemingly habitual and even audacious offenses recorded in local newspaper accounts and court records.
In 1989, he made headlines after being charged in a spree of 100 commercial burglaries in South Jersey. Two years later — within weeks of parole eligibility — he slipped away while working with fellow minimum-security prisoners on a roadside litter crew near Vineland.
Niceler stayed on the lam for more than a month until someone at Bally’s Atlantic City casino recognized him as a fugitive. By 1997 he was back on the street, and in August of that year he was charged with breaking into a Gloucester County restaurant through a drive-in window and making off with more than $4,700 in cash.
Niceler, who grew up in Northeast Philly and spent most of his adult life in Atlantic County, had held jobs as a delivery driver. But a friend said he lost the last such position several years ago.
“We believe these burglaries were his source of income for the past five years,” said Haddon Township Police Capt. Scott Bishop.
Niceler lived with and took care of his ailing father, who died in February 2016. Friends on social media praised his devotion, and Maxwell remembers Niceler bringing his dad to the historical society in a wheelchair.
But for all his industriousness, knowledge, and congeniality, Niceler also could be abrasive, difficult, and opinionated, friends said. He made a few enemies, as the less-than-charitable social media posts after his arrest suggest.
And when not doing historical research, he was busy studying online maps, taking virtual tours of businesses and examining social media photos posted by employees as he allegedly searched for new establishments to victimize, police said, “He was interested in untraceable goods — meaning cash,” said Bishop.
Niceler was so thorough with his online research that he allegedly planned some heists without having to leave home. Arriving at his destination, he would carefully park beyond the sweep of surveillance cameras, Bishop said, and outside of what experience taught him would be a likely police perimeter.
That way, he would be better able to disappear into the dark even if law enforcement were summoned to the scene.
“He’d gotten very good at it,” the police captain said.
But skillful research and due diligence are not qualities confined to historians (or cat burglars). Law enforcement professionals possess them as well.
After the 2016 Giumarello’s break-in and a second, similar burglary four months later, a trio of Haddon Township detectives –Timothy Hak, Mark Pagano, and Sgt. Joseph Johnston — started to investigate possible connections with other unsolved South Jersey break-ins.
And upon hearing about Niceler’s Christmas Eve arrest at Laurel Hill Plaza, they contacted Gloucester Township police and began a joint effort that resulted in the additional charges.
Local historians weren’t the only people startled to hear that the guy with encyclopedic knowledge of Egg Harbor City was a suspect in a rash of break-ins, that the man with what one pal called “a steel-trap mind” had a rap sheet a mile long.
So the other day, thinking I might find a clue or two, I listened again to the interview I recorded with Niceler last summer, for a column about the history of the White Horse Pike.
He spoke with mesmerizing fluency about vanished places and deceased personages, and with palpable reverence for vintage ephemera and arcana of all sorts.
In other words, Dennis Niceler was a very talented storyteller.
But it seems the story he didn’t want to tell was his own.