Jeff Jardine: Bookstore break-ins a Modesto mystery

jjardine@modbee.comJune 21, 2014 

Section 24 of Yesterday’s Books is full of whodunnit novels.

Phil and Paula Gauthier sell tons of them for about $4 apiece at their store on McHenry Avenue, and pretty much every one of the mysteries is solved at the end.

If only the police could solve the mystery of who broke into the Gauthiers’ store twice in the past 21/2 months, including May 31, when someone smashed the glass out the emergency exit door to steal a computer and some coins.

Phil Gauthier isn’t too optimistic. Property crimes are a lower priority, understandably, than violent crimes. Staffing shortages mean that in many cases, the police respond when they can get around to it.

“I understand,” Gauthier said. “They have to triage the calls.”

And when they do catch burglars and vandals, the perps don’t spend much time in jail because the beds are reserved for violent criminals.

“And I understand that, too,” Gauthier said. “Do I want to have that bed for someone who has assaulted somebody or for the guy who just stole from a garage sale?”

Regardless, its still difficult to have your home or business burglarized or vandalized, and Gauthier’s business is getting hit even though he has a reliable alarm service and a good insurance policy.

“It’s the most frustrating thing about being a business owner,” Gauthier said.

Indeed, what’s happened to his store is no different that what’s happened to other shops and stores through Modesto and the Valley.

“I understand his frustration,” Police Chief Galen Carroll said.

The days of having officers to respond with any urgency to most alarms and 911 calls are a thing of the past. City officials were relying on Measure X, a 1 cent sales tax, to pass in November 2013 and put more officers on the streets. But it failed. Why?

A half-cent tax with the revenue dedicated only to hiring more police and firefighters would have required 66.67 percent approval. Often, dedicated taxes fail because of that high threshold. But the library tax passed with 81 percent of the vote in 2012.

Instead, the mayor and council got greedy. They pushed a 1 cent general tax that would have generated $26 million annually for six years, giving them far more money but with no guarantee the revenue would be used to to add public safety positions. Needing only a simple majority to pass, the voters said no.

Consequently, the council this month passed a $340 million budget that included $4 million in cuts to police and fire, leaving the city with 209 police officer positions and 129 firefighter positions – the lowest levels in more than two decades.

By that time, Carroll already had pulled two officers from the countywide auto theft task force and reassigned the positions to property crimes, giving the unit four investigators.

Property crime reports have declined over the past year, but that doesn’t mean property crimes have declined. It may mean only that fewer are getting reported.

“A few people or crews can have a big impact on the numbers,” Carroll said. “One person on a crime spree can do a lot of damage. In a seven-day period, we had 10 commercial burglaries (in north Modesto). As a result, we did the surveillance and caught these guys in the act. The (next) seven-day period had one burglary for the same area. We had several commercial burglaries on Coffee, McHenry and Tully where the suspect broke holes from restrooms into adjoining businesses.”

In all, they caught five burglars in little over a week. It’s doubtful any of them were first-timers. They could be linked to other crimes.

That doesn’t help Gauthier, though.

“I was in here at 12:30 one night and heard someone up on the roof,” Gauthier said. “It took (police) about two hours to respond.”

For safety reasons, the officer had to wait for backup before going up to check the rooftop. When another call came, the officer left.

“He said, ‘Sorry, I have to go,’ ” Gauthier said. “I’d be willing to pay $100 or $200 a year if they would come.”

The police can’t sell response priority, Carroll said. Instead, business owners and residents would be better served by installing video surveillance cameras at their homes and businesses.

“Advertise that ‘You’re under video surveillance,’ ” he said. “And spend $200 more on the camera. A blurry video doesn’t do any good.”

Neither has a posting on Yesterday’s Books’ Facebook page. Below a photo of the broken glass door is some wishful thinking from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling:

Enter, stranger, but take heed / Of what awaits the sin of greed/ For those who take, but do not earn / Must pay most dearly in their turn.

Whodunnit? It remains a mystery, and a novel thought.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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