A burglary victim speaks: 'Probably the biggest feeling I have is a feeling of violation'

April 5, 2008 

BR Home Burglary Boster

Toni Boster's Turlock home was burglarized in December and $6,000 worth of jewelry was stolen including her wedding ring. The burglar entered the home through this small bathroom window. (Brian Ramsay/The Modesto Bee)

BRIAN RAMSAY — Modesto Bee

  • What's what?

    Proper terms for property crimes can be confusing, so here's a handy guide.

  • Property crimes: These include burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft. The object is to take money or property. There is no force or threat of force against the victims. Arson is not included.
  • Burglary: This refers to going inside a building to steal property. It also can mean entering to commit any felony.
  • Larceny-theft: Larceny, essentially, is stealing, or the illegal taking of someone's property without consent.
  • Robbery: This is considered a violent crime, not a property crime. It is the unlawful taking or attempted taking of someone else's property by force or the threat of force. This includes armed, unarmed and aggravated robbery, car-jacking, armed burglary and armed mugging.
  • Auto burglary or theft from a vehicle: Stealing from a vehicle, whether someone breaks in, reaches in or opens the door, is called auto burglary or theft from a vehicle.

Within an hour last year, a burglar broke into Toni Boster's home, trashed her belongings, stole her jewelry collection and destroyed her sense of security.

It was Dec. 13, her husband's birthday. Boster, a 40-year-old Turlock homemaker, ran out for an hour with her 3-year-old daughter. About 1:30 p.m., she pulled into the garage and sent her daughter inside.

"Go in, go make a birthday card for Daddy."

"Mommy, the door's locked."

The family only locks that door at night, so Boster tried to push it open, thinking her daughter was wrong. It wouldn't budge. They came around through the front door, which was unlocked.

Inside, Boster found a mess. Drawers pulled open, papers strewn on the floor. Upstairs in her bedroom, clothes were everywhere and her bedding was in disarray. She walked to the closet where she kept her jewelry.

"The closet was completely trashed. All the jewelry was gone," Boster said.

She hadn't put on her wedding ring that morning because she'd planned to spend the day at home. It was gone, along with a sapphire ring, a pair of gold earrings she'd received for her 16th birthday and the rest of the $6,000 collection of jewelry she'd built over 25 years.

"Probably the biggest feeling I have is a feeling of violation. A stranger was in my house, rummaging through my stuff," she said. "It still creeps me out. He touched my underwear. He touched my pillow."

Boster later realized the burglar had come in through a bathroom window she'd left cracked about half an inch. The screen had been pried off and there was a telltale clump of mud on the toilet where the burglar climbed in, feet first.

A community service officer from the Turlock Police Department who came to take fingerprints was sympathetic, Boster said. But in all likelihood, the officer said, if police caught the culprit, he'd probably serve 45 days in jail and then be out again.

"It's a safe bet that (the burglar) was a drug addict, and looking for a quick fix," Boster said. "And his need for drugs was greater than the sentimental value of my wedding ring. I have a pretty new one now, but it's just, every time I look at it, it's just not the one my husband put on my finger. And that, that's sad."

Property crimes rampant

Burglaries and thefts are the most frequently occurring crimes, law enforcement agents say. Though property crimes might not bring with them the same degree of trauma as violent crimes, more people are victims of burglars and thieves than murderers and rapists.

"It's just not a good feeling to know your security has been compromised," said Gary Martinez, a property crimes detective with the Modesto Police Department. "You have to deal with insurance, deal with repairs and figure out what you can do to make yourself safer."

Property crimes are a huge problem throughout the county. As of 2006, Stanislaus County had the second-highest property crime rate in the state, right after San Joaquin County, according to RAND, a national research institution that provides historical criminal statistics based on Department of Justice data. Property crimes include burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft. The object of these offenses is to take money or prop-erty; neither force nor threat of force is involved.

Robbery, on the other hand, is defined as stealing by force or threat of force.

The Modesto and Turlock police departments and the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department reported large jumps in the number of home burglaries from 2006 to 2007.

In Turlock, there were 37 percent more home burglaries in 2007; in Modesto, about 26 percent more. And the Sheriff's Department showed a 22 percent increase in unincorporated areas.

In 2006, Stanislaus County's burglary rate was fifth in the state, not far behind Kern, San Joaquin, Merced, and Sutter and Yuba counties combined, according to RAND. Orange County had the lowest burglary rate, with about 4 in 1,000 people falling victim to it, compared with nearly 10 in 1,000 in Stanislaus County. On average, state residents have an almost 7 in 1,000 chance of being burglarized, about the same as the national average.

In fact, the California crime index ranked Stanislaus County fourth for overall serious crimes compared with 22 other statistical regions and the state as a whole. It followed San Joaquin County; Alameda and Contra Costa counties combined; and Sacramento, Placer and El Dorado counties combined.

Crime is not cheap for Modesto's residents.

Home, commercial and auto burglaries cost Modestans $6,661,049 in lost property in 2007, according to the Department of Justice. That's more than $1 million above the previous high in 1997, of $5,417,363.

To make matters worse, many of these crimes go unsolved. Nationally, less than 13 percent of burglaries result in an arrest, according to the Department of Justice.

"There's a lack of resources, a lack of money and a lot being thrown at you at the same time," Modesto police Detective Sean Dodge said.

Detectives receive stacks of 100 to 200 burglary reports each week. Many hold few, if any, clues about the culprit. Yet the prevalence of crime shows on television, detectives say, has given burglary victims a skewed understanding of what type of investigation is feasible.

Officers call it "the 'CSI' effect," based on the popular CBS crime show known for its fancy gadgets and fast results.

"They think that we can pull fingerprints out of nothing," Dodge said. "I've had questions about cell phones being used to track burglars via satellite. They think we can hear them through the satellite. It's upped the expectation of what we can actually do. Many of those things aren't possible, either because of financial limitations or because they just don't exist."

In the fraction of arrests that do occur, convictions are hard to come by, authorities say. Juries, too, have unreal expectations of the evidence they will see in court, Martinez said.

"They really expect a dog and pony show," he said. "Video. Surveillance. 'CSI.' If they don't see that in the courtroom, they say, 'You should have done this, you should have done that.' They really believe we're going to get a hair follicle off a carpet for a residential burglary."

John Yoshida directs the Department of Justice's Central Valley Laboratory in Ripon. The lab handles forensic, drug and DNA analysis for 80 law enforcement agencies. The department runs 10 field labs, and several other specialized labs, in California. Agencies that can't afford their own labs can send evidence to these labs for free.

DNA evidence rarely collected

Officers often don't collect DNA evidence from burglary crime scenes because it isn't there, or there isn't enough time, Yoshida said. And there's no way his lab could analyze DNA evidence from burglaries, even if police sent it in.

"I would have to, at a very minimum, triple my staff in order to do that," he said. "We have a tremendously high violent crime rate in the valley. In small towns, maybe the robbery or the burglary is the biggest thing they have. But we have to measure that against a homicide or a sexual assault. We really have to put the violent crimes first."

A handful of law enforcement agencies around the country have begun collecting DNA evidence in burglary cases, arguing that many criminals start out as burglars before moving on to violent crimes. So stopping them, or at least tracking them, from the beginning can be cost-effective and a boon for public safety.

"If it costs $2,000 to $3,000 to process this DNA sample, and you've got a $500 burglary loss, from an economic standpoint the public would probably say it doesn't make sense," said Dean Gialamas, who directs the Forensic Science Services Division for the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "But from a social ecology standpoint, you've taken a perp off the street and stopped someone earlier in their criminal career. How do you put a price on preventing a murder or sexual assault down the road?"

In 2007, Gialamas' lab ran DNA from 786 burglary cases and came up with 261 hits from a database that has DNA samples from convicted offenders as well as samples from other crime scenes. That's twice as many hits as the lab got in 2006. In 2005, the first year the lab started to pursue DNA analysis from burglaries aggressively, the lab got 40 hits.

The lab received a grant in 2005 from the National Institute of Justice that allowed Gialamas to hire more staff and study what type of DNA sampling would be the most revealing.

"We already knew that finding blood or cigarette butts would produce results," he said. "But what if someone handled a doorknob or moved a jewelry box? Would that lend itself to the collection of DNA?"

His staff found that high traffic spots, such as doorknobs, often had the DNA of three to five people, making it hard to separate the DNA and get conclusive results. Other surfaces, such as computer cables that had been unplugged and left behind from a stolen laptop, yielded higher success.

The lab's findings have helped establish best practices for other departments to follow. They've also contributed to its high hit rate in the DNA database. The average national hit rate, Gialamas said, is about 10 percent. In 2007, his lab's was 33 percent.

"We should fund crime labs across the country such that they're not only helping solve crimes that were already committed," he said, but "fund them so they're able to prevent crimes from happening later. If criminals know that there's an aggressive DNA program in that area, they may think twice about committing a crime there."

Victim now uses jewelry decoys

Burglary victim Boster was able to file a claim with her insurance company and replace most of her jewelry. She now leaves decoys out, while her real pieces are hidden.

She and her husband did not tell their other two young children, who were at school during the burglary, about the break-in. Though the couple was shaken by the violation, they decided to spare the kids, she said.

Boster said she fears the burglar could come back to take what he left: antique guns, digital cameras, her husband's laptop. It's not a baseless fear, as police have found that burglars do return to steal what they left behind or even what insurance replaced.

Other factors are against them, too. The Boster home, at the end of a cul-de-sac, sits next to an empty field. Behind them is an empty house for rent, so there aren't as many watchful neighbors as there could be. The family has considered installing an alarm system.

"Every time I come in my house now, I'm very grateful when, the door from the garage, when I can push it open. I'm very relieved. Because that means nobody's been in my house. And I kind of look around when I walk in to see if there's a mess. I probably will always do that," Boster said. "And I guarantee you I don't leave the house now without my good jewelry."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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