POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- If he had lived up to his reputation, cat burglar Blane Nordahl would have simply slipped away at his sentencing, shimmied through a courthouse window, and disappeared.
Instead, Nordahl's eight-year prison sentence Tuesday ended, or at least interrupted, a criminal career encompassing two decades, a dozen states, and uncounted millions in silver loot still unaccounted for.
Nordahl, 42, is the rare criminal for whom the label ''cat burglar" seems apt. He is cagey, nimble, and elusive. He is picky, too. He hit homes in the nicest neighborhoods, in places such as the New Jersey shore and Greenwich, Conn. And he turned up his nose at cash and antiques to concentrate on sterling silver.
Even police give him grudging respect.
''I hate to use the word 'professional,' " said State Police investigator Thomas Fort, ''but that's basically what he's established himself as."
Detective Cornell Abruzzini of Greenwich, who has dealt with Nordahl repeatedly since the '90s, likened him to Lex Luthor, Superman's brainy archrival.
While many burglars are smash-and-run types, Nordahl is precise and meticulous. He is short and trim and can snake through narrow openings in windows and doors. He is limber enough to foil motion detectors. Nordahl once told Abruzzini that he doesn't give off a scent that alarms animals. Exaggeration or not, he has quietly broken into homes with dogs.
Good as he is, Nordahl has been arrested more than a dozen times, mostly for burglary, and has done time. This latest prison stint stems from the night of Jan. 29, 2002, when two grand estates miles apart along the Hudson River were burglarized: Wilderstein, the former home of a relative of Franklin D. Roosevelt now open to the public, and Edgewater, owned by a retired Wall Street baron.
In each case, the burglar patiently chiseled off back door panel moldings and slipped through little holes, bypassing other valuables to pilfer fine silverware. Motion detectors were avoided at Wilderstein. And the burglar was tidy.
''The moldings, when they were chiseled away, were all put in a neat little stack," Fort said.
Looking for leads, Fort sent photos to New York City auction houses and antiques magazines. He spoke to a New York Times reporter, who wrote a short article on the thefts. In Connecticut, Abruzzini read the Times piece and recognized the work. He called Fort to tell him he knew who pulled off the crime.
Nordahl grew up in the Midwest before joining the Navy, but has done much of his work on the East Coast. He started out in the 1980s stealing things like televisions and VCRs, but soon discovered there was big money in sterling. He learned what separates so-so silver from $50,000 tea sets.
Nordahl will sometimes take whole drawers outside the homes he hits to sort through the silver, Abruzzini said.
Detectives note that silver is a canny choice. It's valuable, easy to fence, and hard to trace.
''He knows his product," Abruzzini said. ''He knows the different stampings for sterling. He knows both the artistic and historic value of things."
The whereabouts of the money is a mystery. There is no evidence Nordahl splurged on glamorous houses or cars. Belying the myth of the urbane thief, Nordahl stayed in Super 8 motels and kept company with drug-addicted women.
Then there is the question of why he stole.
His lawyer, Robert Massi, said Nordahl could do anything he set his mind to, including ace legal work on his own defense. So why this?
Nordahl has not told police, and he did not respond to a jailhouse interview request. But Fort's best guess is that Nordahl lived for the moment. And Abruzzini contends that it is about thrills and money for a guy who feels he cannot fit into the 9-to-5 world.
That is why detectives seem dubious Nordahl will make good on his promise to go straight when he gets out around age 50. Fort said prison will afford Nordahl a lot of time to research places to go.
''Who knows with Blane?" he said.