The Ultimate Toys R Us Kid?

In the fall and winter of 2004, a man named John built a reputation for himself at his North Carolina church. Quiet and unassuming — he claimed to have a government job, one that required him to keep most of the details of his employment secret — he was still very generous. Without a second thought, John gave gifts of toys to kids in his community, and not just for Christmas; he would often show up with surprises. He seemed to be a real-life, year-round Santa.

And, in fact, John did share a few things in common with Santa. For example, Santa lived in a toy workshop, and John actually lived in a toy store. And neither paid for the toys they gave out. And they both went by a lot of names; Santa was also known as Father Christmas and Saint Nick; John was legally known as Jeffrey Allen Manchester and often called the Roofman. Oh, and both had a predilection for entering places via the roof, hence the latter’s nickname. The big difference? John — nah, let’s call him Manchester — wasn’t doing most of that stuff legally.

Jeffrey Allen Manchester was a former Army reservist who made a name for himself in 2000, when he was convicted of one of the strangest crime sprees in recent memory. As the Los Angeles Times reported, starting in November of 1998, a burglar — whose identity at the time of the Times article was unknown — liked to steal from the cash registers at various McDonald’s. But unlike most such burglars, he didn’t simply walk up to the register with a note and a gun. Rather, per the Times, “his trademark entry [was through the roofs of hamburger restaurants and other businesses, hacking out a hole with saws and drills–even an ax–and dropping in to surprise employees.” Over the course of about 18 months, the criminal then known simply as “Roofman” robbed as many as 38 such businesses around the country, ranging from California to North Carolina.

But in May of 2000, Roofman’s reign of terror came to an abrupt end; officials in North Carolina apprehended him after he tried to rob two McDonald’s in the same day. Charged with multiple counts of armed robbery and kidnapping (he’d usher Mickey D’s employees into the freezer so he could escape, although per multiple reports, he was kind enough to let them grab their coats first), Manchester was sentenced to 45 years in the clink. He went off to prison, as convicts tend to do. But he didn’t stay there. Manchester’s construction skills, it turned out, could be repurposed; instead of drilling holes to enter a building, he could also fashion a contraption to help him exit one. In 2004, according to SF Gate, “while working in the prison’s metal shop, he crafted a plywood platform that he fit in the undercarriage of a delivery truck and rode to freedom,” becoming the first prisoner to escape from the prison in question.

Needing somewhere to live — and some form of income — Manchester turned back to the life of crime and construction that he was familiar with. And he lived out every little kid’s dream in the process: he built himself a little home inside a toy store. Specifically, a Toys R Us in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Daily Beast explained:

When [Sergeant Katherine Scheimreif of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department] and the Charlotte Police found him again, Manchester had been living for several months inside an apartment of his own making, disguised behind a bicycle display in the walls of Toys “R” Us. He had actually burrowed so far into the wall that he ended up in an abandoned Circuit City next door. There, he constructed an even more elaborate home for himself, tucked beneath a stairwell. It was a twenty-four-hour burglary headquarters hidden inside the walls of an American chain store, taking his brand loyalty to a strange new level of spatial intensity where ever-more-elaborate plots could be hatched.

For Manchester, the toy store home had some huge advantages. Finding food wasn’t all that difficult, as Toys R Us sold baby food. Exercise wasn’t a big deal either; per another SF Gate report, after hours, he would just take one of those bikes and go for a ride up and down the empty aisle. During the day, he could entertain himself with any of the DVDs or games he took off the shelves; at night, he often drove some remote-controlled racecars around the roof as well. 

Manchester’s life on the lam wasn’t all fun and games, though. He had planned to rob the Toys R Us in which he lived and had set the plan in motion. He created his own surveillance system of the store, using baby monitors that they had otherwise offered for sale. He allegedly robbed a pawn shop to obtain a gun. And the police believe he burned down a dentist’s office; he had gotten some dental work done there and, per the police’s theory, Manchester wanted to destroy his dental records. 

It was that planned heist of his Toys R Us that resulted in his capture — that, and his charitable relationship with his fellow churchgoers. Manchester tried to pull off his heist on the day after Christmas, but per the SF Gate, “two employees slipped out, forcing him to flee through his secret door and allowing police to find his hideaway.” The police didn’t capture him immediately but members of his church identified him — and told the police that he was dating another parishioner. Manchester’s girlfriend knew him only as John, the generous government employee who gave out lots of toys, as was horrified, so she helped police catch her new beau. She invited him to a fake 40th birthday party the next January, and Manchester showed up, entering through the front door (a first for him, perhaps). The authorities were there to arrest him, and he’s been in prison since.

Bonus fact: Toys R Us went bankrupt in 2017, resulting in closures of all of its stores in the United States and in the UK. But before that happened, many of their stores instituted a “quiet hour,” where the in-store music was turned off, in-store announcements were very limited, and employees dimmed the lights. The reason: to help create a better shopping experience for autistic children. Daniel Cadey, autism access manager for the National Autistic Society, heralded the move, as reported by the Atlanta Constitution-Journal: “Simple changes like this can make a huge difference. For many autistic people and their families a simple trip to the shops, which should be an enjoyable experience, can be fraught with difficulty. Autistic children and adults can become overwhelmed with too much information inside a busy store.”

From the Archives: Special Agent Grimsley: A baseball player who took after Roofman’s tunneling skills.