April 7, 2008

Quest for drugs seen as main culprit in valley burglaries

For six years, smoking meth and stealing consumed W's life. His habit eventually cost $300 to $500 a day, and he supported it by taking other people's property from truck beds, garages, barns or businesses.

"I would drive around all night looking for garages left open. When I saw that, it was like, 'jackpot!' " he said. "I was raised not to steal, not to be like that, so there was a lot of guilt and shame behind it. But I would just get high to forget it. It's a vicious cycle; you feel bad about stealing something, so you go get high. Then you have to steal again to stay high. Toward the end, I didn't really care. I didn't feel anything."

The Bee agreed to refer to this reformed burglar as "W" because he feared other addicts and thieves would target him for sharing his experiences.

Authorities unanimously point to Modesto's drug addicts when asked to explain the area's high burglary rate.

A perfect storm of circumstances has contributed to the problem, experts say. Metal has become more valuable, making it a lucrative way to fund drug habits. Identity theft is on the rise, so personal documents have become more attractive to thieves. Not to mention the weak economy which, law enforcement agents say, leads people who normally would not commit crimes to resort to criminal behavior.

"Once they find out it's easy to do this, and they didn't get caught, there's nothing to stop them," said Gary Martinez, a Modesto Police Department property crimes detective. "Especially if (the theft) is drug-driven. They need to have heroin in their system maybe two to three times a day. They're stealing every day to support a habit. People say, 'I have a $500-a-day drug habit.' So they somehow steal $5,000 a day because they only get a dime on the dollar."

Last year in Modesto, there were 1,534 home burglaries, more than the city had seen since 1998, when thieves struck nearly 1,800 homes. Commercial burglaries, with 682 reported last year, were higher than in any other year reported by Modesto police, who provided numbers back to 1997.

Home burglaries showed significant increases from 2006 to 2007, with a 36 percent spike in Turlock, 26 percent in Modesto, and 16 percent in the parts of Stanislaus County covered by the Sheriff's Department.

Commercial burglaries also jumped, with 37 percent more in Turlock, 26 percent more in Modesto and nearly 10 percent more reported by the Sheriff's Department.

But incidents alone don't tell the full story, because the county's population has grown each year. The crime rate, calculated in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, compares the number of burglaries to population.

Stanislaus County had the third- highest burglary rate when The Bee compared 2006 data from eight simi- larly sized cities within similarly sized counties in the United States. The highest rate in the group belonged to Winston-Salem, N.C., where nearly 14 people per 1,000 became burglary victims. Stanislaus County's rate was about nine people per 1,000, almost twice that of Madison, Wis., which reported the lowest rate.

The burglary rate in Stanislaus County has been inconsistent over the past decade, according to RAND, a national research institution that provides historical criminal statistics based on Department of Justice data. From 1997 to 2001, the rate dropped steadily, from 15 burglaries per 1,000 people to nine. It's been up and down since then, but the county had a rate of about nine per 1,000 in 2006, far lower than the 1997 peak.

Though it may be better than it used to be, burglary remains a burden for its victims and for the law enforcement agents who investigate such crimes.

Developing a strategy

The Modesto Police Department announced a strategy in February to reduce property theft. Chief Roy Wasden reassigned two detectives to the burglary unit, bringing it to five people. The unit also started biweekly countywide meetings for property crimes detectives from around the area, as well as probation and parole officers, to encourage communication and cooperation, according to a report to the city's Safety and Communities Committee from the chief.

In addition to the meetings, the police, probation and parole departments have been working together to check on probationers and parolees with a history of property crimes. Early this year, there were 15 checks in a one-day operation. The compliance checks can lead to arrests -- when people violate their probation or parole -- as well as the recovery of stolen goods.

On March 5, during an operation targeting those with property crime convictions, officers made seven arrests and completed 34 probation searches, said deputy probation officer Cris Strode. Many of the arrests were not related to property crimes. Drugs and outstanding warrants were more likely that day to land people in jail.

These operations are a strong reminder, Strode said.

"We've gone all day and found nothing. You just never know," he said. "But this lets them know we're out here. And I would hope that burglaries would decline as a result."

Another way law enforcement agents combat burglary is by paying close attention to pawn shops. The goal is to make it harder for thieves to turn the goods into cash, said community service officer Cathy Lazar, who works the pawn detail. The job has been around for at least 20 years, Lazar said.

Lazar goes through each stolen property report to see what's been taken. If there are serial numbers listed, she can compare them to numbers in a Department of Justice database that pawn dealers must file before they sell goods. Each week, Lazar visits pawn shops and stores that sell used goods to look for anything she remembers from the property sheets. She takes pictures of identifiable or memorable items, then has victims come in to look at them.

Pawn shops are not allowed to put anything out for sale within 30 days of purchase, which gives Lazar time to track down owners, and for victims to reach out to her about missing property.

People should report stolen property as soon as possible, because it can move fast after it's in burglars' hands, she said. In one case, jewelry from a home burglary about 11 a.m. was in a pawn shop by 1:30 p.m..

"That's how quick it turns around," she said. "Or it will sit in someone's drawer for months, traded somewhere else and traded again. Then it will pop up three months later."

Lazar said Modesto's pawn shops rarely deal in stolen property. You're more likely, she said, to find stolen stuff at flea markets.

It never was too hard for Thomas, another reformed burglar, to find takers for the loot he stole. Drug dealers, also known as "connects," often accept stolen property for drugs, he said.

Easy to find buyers for loot

"I always had an order of people I called," he said. "The closest connect, the next connect, the next connect. Usually within about five or six phone calls, it was gone."

Often, a dealer would put the word out that he wanted certain items to keep or sell. Thomas and his friends would go out to fill the order, he said.

Experts say burglars get rid of most stolen property within 24 hours, which makes sense, if the items are needed to pay for a daily habit. That was the case for Thomas.

Thomas, 28, started using methamphetamine when he was 15. He and his friends would break into cars "just to get high." Walking down the street, they'd look for cars in which people had left CDs, cash, cell phones, laptops, checkbooks or "anything people leave in a car." They didn't care whether it was day or night; they could be in and out of a car before anyone noticed. It took 30 seconds to a minute to break in, then "grab and go."

"I'd sell it or trade it for dope or keep it if I liked it," he said. "Sometimes, three, four or five cars a day. It all depended on how high I was. I usually hit five or six if I was amped up, full of energy and adrenaline and stupidity."

For many addicts, breaking into houses, cars or businesses becomes part of a numbed-out daily routine that simply allows them to function.

"It was no fun," said 20-year-old Gene, who became addicted to heroin when he was 16. "You don't even do it to get high. You just do enough to wake up the next morning and not be sick for a few hours. It's like a job you don't like that you can't quit."

During the time they were committing their crimes, Thomas, Gene and W were close matches for the typical profile of a burglar. The vast majority -- 87 percent -- are male, national statistics show. In a 1999 study, 63 percent were younger than 25. And most, 69 percent, were white; 29 percent were black.

Highest rate of further run-ins with law

Of all criminals, burglars have the highest rate of further arrests and convictions compared with all property crime offenders, according to the Department of Justice.

But for now, at least, these three men are reformed. They all got clean through Stanislaus County's Drug Court program, which takes a year to complete and involves frequent drug tests, group therapy and education. All three are in its fourth and final phase. They said they could not have quit using, or stealing, without it.

"When I first heard about it, I thought, 'It's for losers, it's for quitters,' " said W, who is 31. "It actually saved my life. Now, if I see a cop car go by, I don't have to wonder if they're coming after me."

Drugs aren't all that's fueling the area's burglary problem. Gang activity, police staffing shortages and the sluggish economy also play their part, authorities said.

Gang members commit property crimes for their own gain and to put money into the accounts of incarcerated gang members so they can buy goods from jail and prison commissaries, said Modesto police Detective Mike Freudenthal, a member of the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force.

"What can happen is a gang member gets picked up on a crime and he has no resources, so other gang members send out a note saying, 'Hey, we need to put some money on his books,' " Freudenthal said. "The expectation is that, when the inmate is released, he has to repay that debt back to the gang. That's the continuum of crime. He'll continue to commit property crimes to make money, sending it back in to other inmates in jail or prison."

Hard for authorities to keep up

In addition to gangs, a shortage of officers in Modesto is making it harder to pursue burglars and respond to alarms, Detective Martinez said. Compared with last fall, the Police Department is down 25 officers who left for retirement, took jobs elsewhere or left for other reasons; budget problems have stopped the department from filling the positions. So instead of driving around watching for suspicious circumstances, officers often must hurry from one urgent call to the next.

"We do not have officers in the field available to do regular patrols looking for problems," Martinez said. Computers in patrol vehicles keep officers informed about incidents and calls. "The screen fills up with in-progress stuff where we can respond and catch someone in the act."

The economy plays a role in climbing burglary rates, too, though it's not as influential as an area's drug problems, said Professor Elliott P. Currie of the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California at Irvine. People often relate the econ-omy to the crime rate, but it's difficult to know exactly how they interact.

"It's something that's thought about a fair amount," he said. "The reason it's complicated is because there are different and opposing forces going on."

On the one hand, people often do start stealing when jobs and resources dry up. If times get tight enough, however, there may not be as much around to steal, Currie said.

The crime rate also is influenced by how well people feel they're doing compared with other people. In the late 1960s, property crimes rose in the United States, Currie said, not because of an economic slump, but "because some people were doing really well and society as a whole was becoming more affluent. The people who were not doing so well could look around and see other people getting all this great stuff and think to themselves, 'I'm not doing any better than I used to.' "

Another complication has to do with employment, Currie said. If a lot of people are unemployed, it means they are more likely to be home during the day, meaning someone is protecting the house, making it less attractive to burglars.

But generally speaking, Currie conceded, when the economy is bad, especially for a long time, society is likely to see property crimes rise.

"If you could sit down and talk to all the burglars and ask, 'Hey, why did you do that?' you'd get different responses at different times," he said. "Ultimately, that's the only way you really know."

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

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