Man, 81, uses antique shillelagh to chase ruse burglars from Niles home: ‘I was trying to find some type of persuasive weapon’

By JENNIFER JOHNSON, Pioneer Press / Chicago Tribune

When intruders targeted Dan and Barbara Donovan’s Niles home earlier this month, they picked the wrong couple to burglarize.

Instead of fleeing the modest brick house with valuables, the three men ran in fear as Dan, 81, chased them out the door with an antique shillelagh, a wooden Irish walking stick that once belonged to his grandfather.

“I hit the one guy on the back of his head,” Donovan, a former Marine, recalled. “I’m certain he had a headache.”

It was late afternoon on Nov. 4 when the couple, 50-year residents of Niles, heard a knock at their door and found a man wearing a reflective vest and a face mask standing outside. The visitor, who was carrying what appeared to be tools, said he was there to check their “fuse box” due a recent fire in the area.

Barbara Donovan said the visit did not immediately seem unusual.

“We had received a letter from the electric company the day before,” Donovan said, explaining that the letter indicated work would be taking place in their area and would include power outages. “So when he said he was with the electric company, we let him in.”

What the couple didn’t immediately realize was that the man wasn’t a utility worker — and he wasn’t alone. As he led the couple into the basement of their home, two additional people sneaked inside through the now unlocked door.

Downstairs, Barbara Donovan began to feel suspicious about the man who was looking over her electric circuit panel.

“I kept backing up and he kept saying, ‘Come over by me,’” Barbara said. “He said, ‘If you’re home alone, you won’t know what to do,’ and kept telling me to come closer to him. I thought that was kind of weird.”

Dan Donovan holds the shillelagh, an Irish walking stick, that he used to chase intruders from his Niles home on Nov. 4.

Dan Donovan holds the shillelagh, an Irish walking stick, that he used to chase intruders from his Niles home on Nov. 4. (Jennifer Johnson / Pioneer Press)

Suddenly, Barbara heard the squeak of floorboards above her head.

“I yelled, ‘Danny! Somebody’s in our bedroom!” she said.

Barbara bounded up the steps, followed by her husband and the so-called utility worker. When they reached the main floor, the Donovans discovered there were more than just the three of them inside.

“I started chasing them to get them out of my house,” Dan Donovan said.

That’s when he grabbed his grandfather’s shillelagh, which was propped up in the corner of the couple’s dining room.

“I was trying to find some type of persuasive weapon,” Donovan said. “So I picked up the Irish shillelagh and that turned out to be the equalizer because I managed to chase them out of the house.”

One of the men was carrying what Donovan recognized to be a pillowcase from bedroom. Shouting and swinging the shillelagh, Dan Donovan said he struck the man in the back of the head with the end of the walking stick, but he didn’t drop the pillowcase. He followed his partners in crime outside, but Donovan continued his pursuit. Barefoot, he approached the SUV they had parked in his driveway and began hitting it with the walking stick.

“I managed to get a good swing at the windshield and the rear window,” he said. “I think I cracked them both.”

In the meantime, Barbara Donovan said she was on the phone to police, who arrived shortly after the intruders fled the scene.

In all the excitement, and due to the darkening skies, Donovan acknowledged he was unable to get the license plate number or the make and model of the SUV.

Niles police, in their report of the incident, categorized what happened to the Donovans as a “ruse entry,” a common scam in which thieves, posing as utility workers, landscapers, other types of workers or neighbors, approach a home and lure the residents outside or into another part of the house while their partners sneak in and search for jewelry, cash and other small valuables.

The Donovans say they still aren’t quite sure what, if anything, the burglars stole, but they do know their pillowcase was taken and their bedroom drawers had been removed and rummaged through.

“They just scared the heck out of us,” Barbara said.

The couple acknowledged they feel somewhat chagrined that they didn’t catch on right away that they were victims of a scammer. Even their children, they say, ask them why they let the first man inside. Barbara points to the letter they received the day earlier from ComEd, though she now wonders if that, too, was part of the scam.

For his part, Dan Donovan praises his wife for quickly catching on to what the scammers were up to. The incident has taught him to be more alert, he said, and he urges others to do the same.

And while he doesn’t consider himself a hero, Barbara does.

“I felt a lot better when I saw him with the shillelagh because he was chasing them out of the house,” she said.

“Hopefully they got nothing more than a headache and hopefully they pursue another occupation,” Dan Donovan said.