SALEM - For nearly a decade, he was just a shadow of a man. Police chased him - sometimes literally - from the Back Bay to Brighton, through suburban rail yards and city streets in the middle of the night. According to authorities, Adam Brandt was there and then, just like that, he was gone.
But his alleged tag - "Spek" - remained, staining trucks, buses, and train cars from Boston to Salem. He became, according to police, one of the most prolific graffiti vandals in Eastern Massachusetts, potentially responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage. And even when authorities charged Brandt for his alleged work - once in May 2003 and a second time last March - the slim, blue-eyed lumberyard worker proved elusive. His punishment each time: probation and community service, nothing more.
But the police officers pursuing Brandt - Detective Bill Kelley of the Boston Police Department and Lieutenant Nancy O'Loughlin of the Massachusetts Bay Transpor tation Authority Police - did not despair. In time, they figured, their nine-year effort to charge him with dozens of cases would pay off. This month, Brandt was arrested in Salem and charged with 16 counts of tagging and 16 counts of malicious wanton destruction to property.
In the graffiti underworld, this was big news. Brandt, who did not return phone calls for this story, is well known to his peers, authorities said, and a member of a graffiti crew called Illustrate Total Destruction, or ITD, respected by those wielding spray paint cans, decried by the people they vandalized. His arrest, one of the biggest vandal busts that local police have made in recent years, reveals a slice of the subculture: Graffiti, perceived to be an urban problem, is more often than not perpetrated by suburban kids who are not actually kids.
The fact that Brandt is 27 years old and holds down a job at Moynihan Lumber in North Reading hardly surprised police when they learned his identity. Now, with the evidence gathered at Brandt's apartment this month, he could face charges in dozens of other cases, authorities say. Salem investigators say they found evidence that may link Brandt to graffiti activity in New Jersey and Rhode Island. And the officers who have been tracking Spek's tags for years - Kelley and O'Loughlin - are hoping they have enough evidence this time to put Brandt behind bars.
"He's just been a constant pain since about '99," said O'Loughlin, a 47-year-old graffiti expert with short graying hair and a steely gaze. "He and his crew have just been a constant. They've hit the Blue Line, the commuter rail, the Red Line, and the Orange Line. It's kind of like when you have a sore tooth and you keep putting your tongue on it because it won't go away. That's what they were like."
Graffiti, long the bane of urban centers, has increasingly crept into smaller communities in recent years, plaguing police from working-class Lynn to upscale Marblehead. Police in Danvers have begun assigning specific officers to track vandals. Malden spent $45,000 last year to clean up graffiti. And yet, for departments large and small, graffiti is a hard crime to crack as some people seek the thrill of tagging overpasses, rail cars, and residential fences in the middle of the night and the notoriety that sometimes comes with their work.
Vandals, be they self-described graffiti artists or gang members marking territory, can finish a tag in seconds or just a few minutes. And with the aid of the Internet, they are organized like never before. Recent topics on one popular graffiti website include how to rid your house of evidence, how to get a decent lawyer, and which graffiti artists deserve the most respect.
Without question, Kelley said, Brandt is among them. His alleged tag - Spek, often accompanied by the letters ITD and the crew's circle T emblem - began appearing in Eastern Massachusetts in the late 1990s, authorities said. And Brandt soon earned a reputation as someone willing to go almost anywhere, police said, including tough Boston neighborhoods where the taggers were typically gang members.
"He was everywhere," said Kelley, who began tackling vandalism more than a decade ago as a Boston patrolman. "He was in Brighton. He was in Back Bay. He was at Blue Hill Avenue and Seaver Street. It appeared there wasn't a neighborhood where Adam Brandt wouldn't go and tag. That's how he got respect."
As the tags spread, so did the cost. O'Loughlin estimates that Brandt's alleged crew has caused nearly a million dollars in damage to MBTA property in recent years and that Brandt himself is responsible for a good bit of that total. But for years authorities did not know Spek's identity. And even when they arrested Brandt, he went free.
Late one night in May 2003, Boston police officers caught him and another man carrying backpacks and tagging a trash receptacle in Allston. As Brandt ran from the officers, according to the police report, he hollered to his friend, "Dump the bags." But the officers caught up to the men - and found the bags, too, which were filled with spray paint cans.
However, the case didn't go far. According to court records, Brandt was placed on probation, ordered to pay $300 in court fees, and asked to participate in a city cleanup program.
At the time, Kelley said, investigators hadn't made the alleged connection between Spek and Brandt. Kelley said he ultimately learned Spek's identity by talking to others in the graffiti world. And when Kelley arrested Brandt while working a paid detail last March in the Back Bay and charged him with tagging the bathroom wall of the Cactus Club Restaurant, Kelley said, "I knew . . . that he was Spek."
Still, Brandt walked. A judge placed him on pretrial probation last September and ordered him to serve 50 hours of community service. Kelley said police did not have what they needed to charge Brandt with the litany of crimes they allege he has committed.
But right about the same time, Officer Dennis King, a nine-year veteran of the Salem Police Department, began working in a new unit focused on quality-of-life issues, like graffiti, in his North Shore city. He soon began investigating what he called "a trail of destruction" left behind by a tagger named Spek.
King spoke with T police in December, learned of Brandt's name, then ran it through Salem's database, according to police reports. He discovered that Salem police officers had pulled Brandt over in both 2005 and 2006. After meeting with Kelley in early January and comparing photographs of Brandt's alleged tags, King said he had what he needed to bring him in.
An arrest warrant was issued Feb. 1. Five days later, Brandt turned himself in, King said, and then Salem investigators obtained a warrant to search Brandt's apartment near downtown Salem. Inside, according to police, they found spray paint cans and nozzles, sketches of graffiti, and at least one document linking him to the name Spek.
"I knew how big he was," said King, who said he came to know Brandt's alleged artistic flair in recent months. But King said he never saw it as art. "That's not expression," he said. "That's a crime."
Brandt, if convicted, could face up to two or three years in prison for each charge that he faces. He could lose his driver's license and be forced to pay restitution to his alleged victims. Some in Salem are already lining up for what they believed they are owed.
But others, like Robert Matvichuk, general manager of F.W. Webb in Salem, say they won't bother, even if it Brandt is convicted. Come spring, said Matvichuk, he plans to get some spray paint of his own - red-brick in color, ideally - to paint over the graffiti that Brandt allegedly left on his building more than a year ago. Then, Matvichuk said, it will be over.
The graffiti will be gone.
Keith O'Brien can be reached at email@example.com.