MODESTO — Business owner Lloyd Gleaves said his German shepherd, Dragon, is trained as a police dog to keep intruders out of his South Ninth Street property after normal business hours.
Dragon is the picture of aggression when he barks and bares his teeth. But several weeks ago, Gleaves arrived at his business to find the dog had been poisoned.
Working around the disabled canine, burglars stole thousands of dollars' worth of equipment and parts removed from vehicles, carting the stuff through a hole cut in the fence. Dragon got over his bout with vomiting and diarrhea and is back on duty.
Like most business owners in this unincorporated area between Modesto and Ceres, Gleaves doesn't feel secure when he leaves his business at day's end.
"I get hit every five to six months, and lose $8,000 to $10,000 in property every time," said Gleaves, who builds equipment for the synthetic turf industry. He recently followed the tracks of a stolen welder to a nearby motel and has recovered his tools from the motel rooms, he said.
"The Sheriff's Department can't do anything," Gleaves said. "When they catch these guys, the system just releases them."
Merchants on South Ninth, South Seventh Street and North Crows Landing Road conduct business in one of the worst areas for crime in Stanislaus County. By all accounts, theft, burglary and drug dealing are nonstop.
The area long has been known for violent crime and streetwalkers who sell sex before sunset. At night, prostitutes display their skin in the windows of seedy motels.
Meeting with sheriff
Earlier this month, about 35 business owners aired their concerns to Sheriff Adam Christianson in a conference room at Tenth Street Place. They said they often catch burglars on surveillance cameras and track their property to motel rooms and trailer parks.
They complained that deputies don't make arrests and detectives don't seem to follow up after they're furnished with information.
Christianson replied that budget cuts have left his department 80 deputies short, though the department is hiring again. A vocal critic of public-safety realignment, Christianson said the county no longer can send low-level offenders to state prison. Those arrested and convicted for property crimes are commonly released from jail to alternative programs.
But the sheriff told merchants he still wants to know if his staff is not being responsive. He encouraged business owners to share information, deploy security systems and form neighborhood watches.
To frustrated owners who carry firearms, Christianson said it is their right, but he cautioned they could be held liable for causing injury to trespassers. "There are lawyers down the street waiting to take their cases," he said.
Guard dogs can cause injuries leading to lawsuits, or they can be poisoned with antifreeze and prescription drugs.
Metal theft common
Mark Farriester, an auto dismantler on Crows Landing, estimates he loses $500 a week to theft. He lost 1,500 pounds of scrap metal one night, and $5,000 worth of transmissions were stolen from his wrecking yard in November, he said.
A 700-foot fence topped with razor wire on the back side of his property is a patchwork of car hoods, plywood and frames, where he has constantly filled holes cut by thieves.
Farriester was called when someone tried to sell marked auto parts to a metal recycler. The man was held until a deputy arrived, Farriester said, but no arrest was made after the man said he wasn't the person who took the car parts.
Farriester said he has caught thieves on camera and knows where stolen items are taken in a nearby trailer park. But the information never is enough to result in arrests.
"It's not taking me out of business, but every time I leave the counter to mend the fence or talk to deputies, I'm losing deals," he said.
Merchants claim that several hotels and trailer parks are attractive nuisances, housing drug users who prey on their businesses so they can get high. Merchants say the housing is substandard and living conditions deplorable.
Gleaves said he doesn't understand why county officials don't require the landlords to correct code violations, and then shut down those who don't comply.
Jami Aggers, director of county environmental resources, said at the recent meeting that code enforcement is complaint-driven and that the county had no current complaints for motels on South Ninth and Seventh streets.
County Supervisor Jim DeMartini defended the work of deputies in the area. He suggested that business owners install more lighting and hire private security patrols, as farmers have done to curb rural crime.
DeMartini said the county needs to stay on top of building code violations, but he doesn't think they are the main problem. "It's probably not the cockroaches and the broken smoke alarms, it's the drugs and the other criminal activity in those hotels," he said.
Illegal activity at motel
Some merchants are critical of Shiva's Motel on South Ninth. In January, a fire damaged some of the units, and other rooms at the motel are boarded up, leaving only 15 of the 33 rooms open.
Motel owner Sumintra Prasad said Friday that she's waiting for an insurance settlement before making repairs. She said Gleaves has complained to her about not curbing illegal activity at the motel.
"It's not the people who live there that cause the problems. It's the people who come to visit," Prasad said. "I have a security guard who looks after it. We can't keep an eye on the place 24/7."
Farriester said he was burglarized less often when a deputy was assigned to the area some years ago. The deputy tracked down burglars and responded to tips about stolen property, but she got assigned to another beat, Farriester said. A second deputy suggested that business owners sue landlords who ignored lawbreaking in their housing, but that deputy took a job with another agency.
Mirza Gul said he learned break-ins were a cost of doing business on South Ninth after his mother bought a tire shop there in July. Burglars have shattered the sliding glass door of the sales office and broken into the bathrooms.
He said eight tire rims were stolen in another incident; four were returned when someone tried to sell them to his father-in-law, who owns a tire business on Crows Landing Road. "The Sheriff's Department should do something about the motels," Gul said. "The bums living in the motels are causing the problems."
Low rent vs. security
Christianson could not be reached Friday to say whether additional resources will be focused on the unincorporated area.
The merchants could follow other groups that have banded together in Modesto to improve their neighborhoods.
According to business owners, the vehicle traffic and lower property costs on South Ninth create opportunities for profit. Marcus Mosinske said the lease for his U-Haul business would cost three times more on McHenry Avenue; plus, the company wanted a location near Ceres.
Gleaves said he paid $12,000 a month to rent 25,000 square feet of space before moving his business to a larger property he bought on South Ninth. His payments are $4,000 a month.
Security is a constant worry, however.
Gleaves said the merchants are putting together an email chain. A watch group could be formed and it could install more lighting.
"When (the criminals) know you are looking, they go away," Gleaves said. "We are not going to give up. We are not going to let the bad guys have this place."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.