Paso Robles police team cracks down on home burglaries

Nicole felt sick to her stomach when she saw the contents of her dresser strewn across the bedroom floor. Her young daughter’s jewelry box was picked through. Nearly $10,000 in goods was missing. Irreplaceable family objects were gone.

“Strangers rifling through your house,” she said, “It’s just an icky feeling. You go through the motions and think, ‘This can’t be real.’ ”

Her family was among 29 households that reported burglaries to the Paso Robles Police Department in December and January.

That number fell to nine last month, Lt. Tim Murphy said, which is more in line with statistics from the previous two years. March reports will be available in April.

Police discovered that the uptick in crime was caused mostly by teenagers — one as young as 13 — who typically skipped school to burglarize homes during the day when families were gone.

When police noticed an increase in burglaries in late 2009, they freed up four officers through schedule adjusting to be part of a special investigative team. Ultimately, they made 17 arrests, seized guns and drugs and returned as much recovered property to the rightful owners as possible. Response calls outside the team resulted in additional burglary arrests.

“We initially thought there were some organized crime groups,” said Officer D.J. Bigelow, one of four members on the task force. “But then the more we got into it, we ended up with two or three groups of people unrelated but hitting (homes) all in the same time period.”

Now, weeks after the crime sweep appears to have died down, police still urge locals to secure their homes.

“Nine (burglaries) is still nine too many,’’ Murphy said, “We’d love for that number to be zero.”

At Nicole’s house, the family has already installed a new alarm system.

The Tribune is not disclosing her last name because she says she fears for the family’s safety.

Their way in

In their roughly seven-week investigation, the special assignment team identified trends, conducted interviews and combed through suspicious activity in Paso Robles that led them to other crimes.

“Generally, it all leads back to drugs,” Bigelow said. “People who are burglarizing are usually doing it for quick cash or to trade the goods in for drugs.”

Their 17 arrests included drug and gun possession, warrant arrests and probation violations. Two were for burglaries, and another two were for possession of stolen property.

The team identified a marijuana-growing operation and confiscated methamphetamine, cocaine, three handguns and one sawed-off shotgun.

During that same period, other patrol officers and detectives made eight additional arrests of alleged burglars during investigations spurred by response calls.

All of the suspects identified were male. Some were adults, but most were under 18. Some were local; others were not. Their races varied. Some had cars, and some likely ran from the scene. Some worked alone, others in twos or threes.

Flat-screen televisions, digital cameras and video game systems — “All the things people can pick up easily and then walk away with” — were among the items of choice, Bigelow said.

The burglaries started on the city’s west side and moved to the east side, Murphy said.

“It dealt with neighborhoods where the majority of people were gone during the day,” he added. “Most would knock on the front door and if no one answered, they would go try to find an open door or window. If it was open, that was their way in.”

Frightening discovery

Nicole remembered that her 4-year-old son had gone out the front door earlier that day, she said, and it was left unlocked as a result.

The family later exited the home through the garage. She didn’t think about the front door again, which she said isn’t typical of her, until she realized that’s probably how the burglar got in.

Suspects broke windows or forced them open at other homes. Police said they didn’t bring weapons with them, though not everyone was caught to make that a final determination. No injuries were reported.

The crimes were usually reported when residents came home to find their belongings gone. Few were reported while the burglaries were in progress, which made it difficult to catch the thieves.

Some residents walked in while their homes were being burglarized. On Feb. 12, a 12-year-old boy arriving home from school walked in on a burglar while he was rifling through the cabinet drawers in an eastside home.

He was not threatened or hurt by the burglar, police said.

The burglar fled, and the case is still open, Murphy added. Police are working toward an arrest.

Keeping a record

Some aspects of the task force’s investigation proved frustrating, Bigelow said, such as when they found goods that were obviously stolen but couldn’t prove it.

For example, the team entered a residential motel on a warrant search and found several high-end digital cameras sitting on a table.

Police knew that cameras were a popular theft item, he said, but a check of the serial numbers didn’t match what they had in front of them. “We know it’s taken but it’s not coming up, (so) we don’t have what we need to arrest them.”

One way the public can help police recover more stolen property, at least in electronics, he said, is to keep a list of their electronics’ serial numbers somewhere other than on the computer. And, for other personal items, take pictures.

Without fingerprints, one of the only remaining pieces of evidence to link a stolen item back to a person, he added, is specific identifiers on the property.

“Giving a ‘gray laptop’ description isn’t enough,” he said. “We need to find that item in someone else’s house or wherever and run that serial number through the system to determine it’s stolen.”

Nicole got back her camera, video recorder and some video gaming items through police recovery work. But police said that their new $1,300 TV, which her family had bought as a Christmas present for themselves, was probably sold for almost nothing on the street.