A mystery that for weeks unnerved a quiet Capitol Hill neighbourhood in Washington began with a warning placed on a nanny's windshield.

"I know you are misusing this visitor pass to park here daily," the April 4 note read. "If you do not stop I will report it, have your car towed and the resident who provided this to you will have his privileges taken away."

Baffled, the young couple the nanny worked for sent out a message on the community listserv asking for the note's anonymous author to contact them. No one came forward.

Instead, two days later, the nanny's license plates were stolen from her decade-old SUV, according to charging documents. Two days after that, another plate was stolen. Then, in late April, the thief struck once more - but this time the couple caught him on a video camera they had mounted inside their home's front window.

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And the alleged culprit behind the strange spree? His name, according to police, is Bryan Whitman - a top Pentagon official for more than two decades.

After handing over the plates to police and being charged with three counts of minor theft, Whitman, 58, agreed to a deal yesterday that would lead to the case's dismissal if he pays US$1000 in restitution, performs 32 hours of community service, remains out of trouble for the next 10 months and stays away both from the nanny and the woman for whom she works.

The retired Army officer, who declined to comment, is the highest-ranking career civilian in the Defence Department's public affairs office, according to his former supervisor, Price Floyd. Whitman's title: Principal deputy assistant secretary of defence for public affairs.

In that role, his LinkedIn page says, he "personally advises the Secretary of Defence and senior leadership on the public impact of proposed policies, programmes, operations, and activities of the Department."

During much of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was one of the Pentagon's top spokesmen and a familiar figure to dozens of Washington reporters. From 2002 to 2010, according to his lengthy DOD biography, "he was responsible for all aspects of media operations for the Defence Department."

As of today, Whitman's colleagues in the public affairs office were still working to answer the Post's questions about him. It remains unclear when the Pentagon became aware of the case and whether it will have an impact on his career or security clearance.

"I have a hard time accepting this. It just doesn't - wow," said Floyd, who worked with Whitman in 2009 and 2010. "This whole situation does not make sense to me. It's not the Bryan I've known and worked with and respected."

A former political appointee who also worked at the Pentagon was just as stunned.

"I mean, I'm speechless, I don't even know what to say, frankly," he said. "I've always found him to be a good guy. I relied on his advice a lot."

Both described him as meticulous, organised and professional. Another former senior defence official and reporters who know him said he is a stickler for following the rules.

Whitman has lived on First Street SE in Capitol Hill for at least 20 years, according to court records. Beyond a squat metal fence and a brick courtyard, a staircase leads to the front door of his tidy house, valued by city tax assessors at nearly US$900,000.

Surrounding streets are lined with wooden benches and American flags, and Ginkgo trees tower over carefully manicured gardens. The pavements are frequented mostly by dog-walkers, retirees and young parents pushing strollers.

"It's very quiet," said one neighbour. "Everybody is just cordial."

Well, not everybody.

The first sign of discontent appeared atop the nanny's windshield on April 4. The Post is not identifying her or her employers because they say they're afraid. None would comment further.

In addition to the note's message, the sheet of paper included a photo of the nanny's decade-old Lexus SUV and of her visitor parking pass, which neighbours say other babysitters use, too. The note was placed on the nanny's front windshield, just next to a guardian angel prayer written in Spanish and displayed on her dashboard.

Both of the license plates from that car were stolen on April 6 - the day before Whitman's 58th birthday.

The homeowners, who had hired her to look after their 1-year-old son, reported the crime to police, replaced the plates and paid AutoZone to bolt them on, court records indicate. They repeated this process later that week after the rear plate was stolen again.

It was then, court records say, that the couple went to Best Buy, where they spent US$211.99 on a surveillance camera and another US$105.75 on a subscription to the video service.

The nanny also began driving to work in a Honda minivan with plates secured by hefty allen bolts. Both on April 13 and 14, court records say, the video showed Whitman approach the van and inspect it.

I have a hard time accepting this. It just doesn't - wow

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The child's mother, according to the court records, suspected that he didn't attempt to steal the plate then because "the suspect was not prepared with the necessary tools to unscrew these bolts and therefore he was unable to remove the license plate".

A week later, he returned just before noon, and the charging documents describe in detail how determined he was to unhinge the plate: Parking near the nanny's van, walking back and forth from his car to hers, crouching behind it, leaving, returning, crouching more, walking back to his car, driving away.

The process, from beginning to end, took 47 minutes.

The couple soon realised that Whitman is their neighbour. He lives just around the corner.

On May 2, detectives arrived at his home with a search warrant.

The police "asked whether he wanted to provide the license plates to MPD or have the officers' search for the items," the charging documents say. "The suspect consulted his wife and then [said] that the license plates were in his vehicle."

He handed them over.

Even with the charges filed and Whitman ordered by the court not to harass the nanny or her employer, his contact with them didn't end.

On May 5 - the day of his arraignment - the homeowner reported to investigators that he walked in front of her house. Then, on the night of May 10 until the next morning, he parked in front of their house.

"Out of fear for her safety," court records say, the nanny "has begun to park her car two blocks away from the house of her employer".

Prosecutors asked that a judge bar Whitman from contacting either woman or stepping foot on their block, arguing that the nanny couldn't understand his behaviour and "she does not know why he is targeting her or what he might do next".

As part of his agreement with the government, Whitman has also been ordered to stay away from the family's entire block, except when he needs to access the alley behind his home. There, a wooden fence encloses his backyard.

On the door is a white sign with bright red letters: "These premises are protected by VIDEO SURVEILLANCE."