'Tis the Season for Burglary

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)

RUSKIN - Would you like to see an immediate 35 percent decrease in car burglaries? It wouldn’t require hiring hundreds of new police officers or take millions of dollars. All you have to do is lock your doors.

"Just locking your doors can help," said Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Detective Mike Cundiff. "I would say that out of the burglaries I’ve had in the last three or four months, at least 35 to 40 percent of them have involved unlocked car doors."

There is not a place in South Hillsborough County that is immune. Burglaries are literally happening everywhere from shopping center parking lots to quiet residential driveways. In many cases no windows were broken, no door handles were forced. The perpetrators simply walked up and opened the door. "We can’t make it that easy for thieves," said Sun City Center Community Resource Deputy Rob Thornton.

The parking lots are jammed at department stores and shopping malls all over the bay area. Cars become mobile storage units - a place to stow purchases during a long day of shopping, a place to hide gifts from the kids. For thieves, the Christmas buying season is simply too good of an opportunity to pass up. Especially when a car full of gifts is unlocked. In a crowded parking lot, the theft can occur quickly - before you know it, your car is emptied.

For those driving mini-vans or sports utility vehicles, Ruskin Community Resource Deputy Jeff Service has an additional suggestion: "Make sure the back door is locked, too."

"At Brandon Town Center we had a mini-van that left the back door open," said Detective Cundiff. "The victim hadn’t even gotten into the mall yet when they did it. She was walking into the mall when she realized she forgot something. She went back to her car and her stuff was gone."

But shopping centers are not the only target. Nor are "bad" neighborhoods the primary crime scenes.. Car burglaries can happen anywhere, anytime.

"People say, well we’re in a nice neighborhood, we don’t have to worry about that," said Cundiff. "You know what? They have the money, they are buying nice stuff for Christmas and they are leaving it unlocked in their vehicles. If you were a thief, where would you go?"

Twisted Trick or Treat

It is like a twisted form of Halloween trick or treating. Thieves fan out on a street and within a short time, leave with their ill-gotten gain. All for very little effort on their part. Cundiff told of one case where two separate groups were out on the same street. One group was breaking into cars, the other into houses.

"There will usually be two or three of them," said Cundiff. "One kid will be the driver and two kids will just walk on each side of the column and try the doors. They are looking for things that are easy to carry - Playstations, CD cases. They are looking for loose stuff - they’re not going to take the time to pull the stereo out of the dash. They are just grabbing quick stuff like radar detectors, cell phones and loose change. We had a Playstation 2 that was taken from an unlocked car last night - a Playstation 2 with controllers and a CD case full of games."

"The kids don’t have time to actually break into cars," said Deputy Service. "They can come into a neighborhood and hit 100 cars and be gone with a thousand dollars in merchandise in 45 minutes."

As more people are out shopping, the thieves come out in greater numbers as well.  "We’re getting a lot of people that normally don’t go out and do it on a regular basis," added Cundiff. "It’s a lazy man’s way - loose change in the ashtray adds up. We caught a guy in Apollo Beach about three weeks ago that had $55 in quarters in his pocket from just grabbing change out of ashtrays. Most people don’t even report it."

But any officer can tell you that reporting any crime is important. An easy crime could - and often does - lead to bigger crimes. The HCSO wants to stop it before it grows. "Most of the people trying the open car doors are 13, 14, up to 22 years old. The people popping the windows are a bit older but still young," said Cundiff. "I could pull the criminal history of many of these kids and it would be the same stuff over and over. Possession followed by burglary. Then grand theft, grand theft burglary followed by grand theft auto. It’s the same. Possession of marijuana is usually their first charge - possession of something. Then shoplifting then burglary. It’s sad to say but eventually they’re going to steal a car, get into a chase and run someone over or get into something else serious and they are going to get put away. Nineteen years old and they are done."

But it is not just cars that are in the sights of thieves. "There were six residential burglaries in Sun City Center," said Service. "Four days later there were 12 or 13 cars that were broken into. They really don’t have much crime there so that was a big increase. We looked at when and how they were being done and we set up to watch them. I worked nights, [Deputy] Thornton worked every night. Their nature is to go back to the same area so we’ll wait for them and we’ll catch them."

It Worked Great the First Time

Thieves, like many people, return to things that work. "These guys last night got a thousand dollars worth of property in one night just by opening car doors," said Cundiff. "These guys hit the same neighborhood on Sunday night (five days earlier) and they still had property they’d stolen that night in their car. They are hitting the same people more than once. We’re catching a lot of them but there are a lot of them out there."

Write it Down

On the surface it would appear that the HCSO, like law enforcement agencies everywhere, has little success in solving property crimes. Everyone wants to know - did they catch the guy yet?

The truth is that they probably did catch the guy. But they may not be able to find or positively identify your belongings. You can, however, make their job easier by just writing down serial numbers.

"Before you wrap it, before anything, just write down the serial number - it is usually on the box," said Cundiff. "If someone steals it and pawns it, we can recover it and trace it back to you."

The state of Florida requires that pawn shops enter serial numbers into a computer system and get positive identification - including a thumb print of people who pawn merchandise.

"Serial numbers are so important for identification purposes," said Cundiff. "If we catch someone that stole four Playstations - and we’ve got them right there in front of us - how do we know whose is whose if people don’t have their serial numbers? A lot of people have Playstations."

It is rare to have much in the way of evidence on property crimes. There are usually no witnesses. In some cases, without serial numbers, law enforcement can not even prove that the merchandise was stolen.

Just Make the Call

Common sense would dictate that locking doors would be a good idea - particularly when leaving gifts and other valuable items in a vehicle. But there is something else that can be done to reduce the rate of burglaries. It is something that is not done often enough, according to deputies.

"If you see a suspicious person call 911," said Cundiff. Tell them it’s not an emergency but there’s a suspicious person in the parking lot of Wal-Mart or where ever. He may just be looking around and you don’t know if he’s looking for his car or if he’s looking to break into cars. We’ll check him out. If he really is looking for his car, we’ll help him. If not, we’ll get all of his information. [Thieves] will often pretend to be looking for their car when they are really just checking out the parking lot."

Deputy Service concurs. "If you think that it is minor - don’t," he said. It just takes one phone call on your cell phone. If we got that call, Rob Thornton or myself, we’re going to get there as quickly as we can because that may stop five burglaries."

"The biggest thing we need is awareness from the citizens," added Deputy Thornton. "If people see something out of place call it in. They can call 911, they can call the security patrol if they feel more comfortable talking to them, they can call the non-emergency number, 247-8200. The first string of burglaries we actually had a situation where somebody saw a kid dressed in black snooping around behind houses."

Unfortunately, that person did not make the call. An opportunity was lost and more burglaries occurred.

"Folks need to know that this is going on and they need to know that they can call into the Sheriff’s Office about anything that they feel is a concern," Thornton continued. "If it turns out to be nothing, it’s not time wasted - it is time well spent being out in our community."

Mitch Traphagen Photos

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