WINDHAM — Robert Steiner insists he isn’t proud of his crimes.

But even with the metal-on-metal sound of prison doors slamming in the background, he begins to smirk as he describes scamming cars from car salesmen. And then he laughs.

He’s a smooth-talking con man who walks into one Maine car dealership after another with only a suit and tie. He has a fabricated story, a fake name and puts down no money at all. Yet each time, he drives off the lot with a new car.

“I think you get this idea that I’m super proud of myself and that I’m not remorseful or contrite. I mean to some degree, I laugh about it because I do think what I was able to pull off and what I was able to do and everything else, I think it is kind of amusing to say the least. I mean, you look at some people’s crimes and you say, ‘Hideous. Oh my God, that person’s like scum of the earth.’ And then you look at what I did, and people think it’s funny,” Steiner said.

Steiner managed to steal seven new vehicles from six Maine dealerships in a single week in 2014. He sealed the deals with a handshake and a promise to pay that he never kept.

In 2001, he stole three new vehicles from a Portland dealership by pretending he was a business executive buying a fleet for his company. He set the stage for that scam by mailing the dealership a letter of interest with a Windham return address. The dealership didn’t realize it was the mailing address of the prison from which he was then about to be released.

His criminal record goes back decades. Car thefts are the common thread.

Steiner spoke last month during an interview at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, his home again. He’s serving a six-year sentence there for his latest spree last year.

That’s the part that isn’t funny to Steiner. He’s spent more of his adult life locked in prison than as a free man. He’s 47 now, and he’ll be 51 at the youngest when he’s released.

No matter how good he is at hoodwinking car dealers, Steiner always gets caught in the end.

Even Steiner doesn’t know why he keeps doing it.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been able to figure that out. I’m a confused individual in life. I know that. I have good intentions,” he said.

WHY TALK NOW?

Steiner wrote a letter to the Portland Press Herald in August, asking for a prison interview with an offer to “come clean and give you the whole truth.”

He promised an intriguing story. He was orphaned as a child, adopted by a wealthy family in Michigan and given every opportunity to be anyone in life other than Inmate No. 38201.

“I was a kid who was adopted into an upper-class family and had the best of everything, the private schools, the country clubs, the etiquette classes, the piano lessons, the opportunities that most people don’t have,” Steiner said when he got the interview he wanted. “I know I’ve blown it. I know I’ve blown it all.”

He has never had a drug or drinking problem, doesn’t have any diagnosed mental illnesses and never really needed the money. He seems very intelligent, pleasant and polite. Yet he steals cars, scam after scam, even though he says he knows better.

During the 90-minute conversation in a small meeting room at the prison, Steiner struggled to answer one central question: What makes him tick?

He said he stole his first car from a car dealership about 30 years ago when he was a student at Michigan State University in East Lansing. The best reason he can come up with now for why he did it is that he didn’t feel like walking.

Steiner recalled going to the Michigan dealership and taking out a Volkswagen Golf for a solo test drive. Partway through the drive, he stopped and had a duplicate key made before returning the car. He came back after hours with his key, turned the ignition and drove away.

“Back then, there wasn’t a thrill because I was always scared I was going to get caught. The thrill came later, when I graduated to the actual scamming. Taking the keys wasn’t really a thrill. It was more a means to an end. That really wasn’t a thrill. I didn’t really get anything out of it,” Steiner said. “It became that. When you take 12 brand-new cars without paying a dime and they give them to you and deliver them to you without even showing any ID, you just tell them a cockamamie story, then yeah, that became a thrill.”

But Steiner doesn’t think the thrill is the reason he does it.

“I am what I am. I’m a thief,” he said. “But I’m a thief of a different breed.”

DETECTIVE ARRESTED HIM TWICE

Detective Barry Cushman of the Portland Police Department said Steiner wasn’t proud or smiling or laughing when he arrested the scam artist most recently on June 5, 2014.

Steiner was sitting handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser at Berlin City Nissan in South Portland.

Cushman asked Steiner if he remembered him. Cushman was the same detective who arrested Steiner in 2001 for a nearly identical crime.

“He had his head down, almost looking defeated. So when I spoke to him, he didn’t look up,” Cushman said.

Steiner remembers being defiant with the Berlin City staff and South Portland police on the day of his arrest, insisting they were making a grave mistake. But when Cushman arrived, Steiner knew the jig was up.

Cushman said that as soon as he was assigned the Portland end of the case in 2014 – someone giving a false name at Berlin City Toyota on Riverside Street to get two vehicles – he knew almost immediately Steiner was the culprit again.

Steiner used the name “Scott E. Allen” at Berlin City Toyota, but he used the same Falmouth address he gave in 2001 to the former Forest City Chevrolet in Portland. He also used the same basic scam story, that he was a businessman from Michigan seeking some vehicles for a company venture in Maine.

In many of the cases, Steiner convinced the salespeople that he wanted to buy multiple vehicles for a company. He would buy insurance for them over the phone by giving the insurers an actual bank routing number but a made-up account number. He claimed he forgot his driver’s license, but promised to come back another day with the rest of the paperwork for payment. In each case, the dealerships signed over the titles of the vehicles to him, usually with a full tank of gas, and handed him the keys.

Gary Caron, general sales manager at Rowe Ford in Westbrook, told a Press Herald reporter in June 2014 when Steiner was arrested that he tricked members of his own staff into letting him drive off with a new 2014 Ford Escape.

“Basically, he came in and said he worked for a large construction company and wanted to buy 10 cars off us,” Caron said. “This guy is good.”

Caron said Steiner used a fake name. Although he didn’t have a driver’s license on him, the sales staff put a temporary dealer plate on the Escape and allowed Steiner to take it.

“He came in the next day with our vehicle and (arranged to buy) two more vehicles. He wanted us to deliver them to Scarborough,” Caron said. “We put the brakes on because he still hadn’t paid us for the first car.”

Cushman probably knows Steiner better than any other police officer. He interviewed Steiner at length twice. He has spoken to Steiner’s adoptive parents in Michigan. Steiner’s mother, Mary, told Cushman that her son is a “pathological liar” with a history of psychological problems. Steiner’s father, Wilfred, told Cushman that his son could pass a polygraph test even while lying about the color of his shirt.

Steiner’s parents did not return a message seeking comment.

“If we hadn’t stopped him, I don’t think there is any question he would have continued to do these crimes,” Cushman said. “It’s above my pay grade to determine what it is that motivates him. I asked him that both times, and both times I got the same answer: He doesn’t know.”

Cushman said something about the nature of Steiner’s crimes continues to fascinate people, and he is often asked about Steiner.

“He’s too good at what he does. He has a natural ability,” Cushman said. “Essentially what he does is capitalize on the innocence of most people. No one wants to believe they are being victimized or defrauded.”

Cushman said he believes people in the car sales industry are, in a way, easy targets for someone like Steiner because salespeople are used to having the advantage in sales negotiations.

“In my line of work, I’m suspicious of everyone. In that line of work, and the people he’s dealing with, it’s the exact opposite,” Cushman said.

Cushman said Steiner’s crimes are peculiar in one respect: He doesn’t steal the cars for any particular purpose. He doesn’t sell them or use them. In the 2014 case, Steiner just parked and abandoned most of the cars.

“Steiner steals when he doesn’t really have a need for what he’s stealing. And he’s an intelligent guy. He knows he’s not going to get away with it,” Cushman said.

Salespeople at the individual Berlin City Auto Group locations deferred to the chain’s market president, Yegor Malinovskii, for comment.

Malinovskii did not return a message seeking comment.

FROM ORPHAN TO ADOPTION

Steiner said he wanted to talk now because he thinks the public should know there’s more to his story than what has been told.

“I don’t know what I want them to think of me. Quite frankly, I don’t want them to think of me as the bad guy,” he said. “I’m more than just some guy who went on a crime spree and stole a lot of cars.”

Steiner was taken from his mother when he was 1 year old and placed in a series of foster homes. He was involved in one failed adoption when he was about 5, followed by a permanent adoption by the Steiners, who also had three biological children.

“Too much psychological damage by then,” Steiner said.

He was diagnosed early with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Ritalin and Dexadrine as a child.

His behavior remained “poor” throughout his childhood, by his own estimation. He said his behavior became even more of a problem in junior high at University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy in Detroit, Michigan. “Smart kid, but couldn’t apply myself in school. Jesuit school. I told a priest what he could do,” Steiner said.

From there, Steiner bounced from one private boarding school to another, purposely misbehaving at each one. He was sent to the DeSisto School, a behavior modification institution in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and later to the Elan School in Poland, Maine, a controversial behavioral school that closed in 2011.

“I mean yeah, I had a tough upbringing before I got adopted. My parents were more about discipline and everything after that. They expected me to be like their natural-born children, perfect. They expected me to be a straight-A student. If you got a B, that wasn’t good enough,” Steiner said. “I feel really guilty, but there are times when anger outweighs that. I feel they gave up prematurely. They were always sending me away to someone else.”

Steiner’s account of his background was confirmed by his attorney and by police records.

A PSYCHOLOGICAL MYSTERY

Steiner’s attorney, Robert LeBrasseur, argued for a lighter sentence for Steiner in the 2014 case by saying the car dealerships had to shoulder blame for letting him drive off with their cars with nothing more than a promise.

“You can’t walk into a bank and ask for it to give you a sum of money equal to one of these vehicles with no ID and say you’ll pay them back in a week. It’s impossible,” LeBrasseur said. “I think that held some weight with the court.”

LeBrasseur agreed to speak about Steiner only after Steiner waived his right to attorney-client confidentiality, freeing LeBrasseur to talk about mental health evaluations of Steiner before he was sentenced on Nov. 26, 2014.

LeBrasseur said the evaluations showed nothing that would cause his behavior. But LeBrasseur equated the scamming to the drug addiction he sees in so many of his clients.

“That’s his drug. That’s how he gets his high. For Steiner, that’s the same thing, that was his excitement,” LeBrasseur said. “We had evaluations done and no one knows. At some point, something must have happened where there was a trigger.”

Steiner was diagnosed with an impulse control problem, the same broad category that includes kleptomania, the disease that leads people to steal with no self-control to stop themselves. But LeBrasseur was clear that Steiner was not diagnosed with kleptomania and clearly made a decision before going to each car dealership with the intention of scamming them.

“It’s a different kind of impulse control than kleptomania,” LeBrasseur said.

Dr. Carlyle Voss, a psychiatrist who has a private practice in Portland, said he couldn’t offer an opinion about Steiner specifically but suggested that someone who engages in that kind of serial criminal behavior may be more than just a thrill seeker.

“People engage in risky behavior because it gives us an adrenaline rush. The little adrenaline rush, all of us are subject to that,” said Voss, the former assistant chief of psychiatry at Maine Medical Center.

But starting at childhood, most people develop what in psychoanalysis is called the superego, the guiding force that helps people choose right rather than wrong, he said.

“Society depends highly on people voluntarily following the rules,” Voss said.

For someone like Steiner, who understands the rules but repeatedly chooses to break them, the behavior is likely more complex than just something that he does.

“The rest of us who follow the rules will have difficulty understanding it,” Voss said.

LeBrasseur said the mental evaluations also ruled out that Steiner was sociopathic – a personality disorder resulting in antisocial attitudes and without care for others.

“He’s a good individual who is misguided, I guess,” LeBrasseur said of Steiner. “I think it’s part of some sort of chemical imbalance in his brain. I don’t think he wants to do this.”

LeBrasseur said that though Steiner has spent most of his adult life in prison, he could still be a productive member of society in the future when he is released. Steiner has excelled at a prison dog-training program, so he could have a future working with animals, LeBrasseur said.

Or else, LeBrasseur suggested, adding that he wasn’t joking, Steiner would make an excellent consultant to the auto industry on car salesmanship.

Steiner’s earliest possible release date is Sept. 28, 2019.

This story has been edited to correct the location of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy.