Burglars smashed in the front doors of three homes on the same west Wichita block one morning last week, dumping out drawers, pushing back mattresses and tearing material off box springs, looking for valuables.
About the same time, on a southeast Wichita street, someone used a rock to knock a hole in a back window so they could reach in, turn the latch and steal, among other things, an old railroad watch handed from generation to generation. The burglars were lucky or seemed to know when the residents, who come and go, were away. Police took photos at the homes and checked for fingerprints.
The odds of catching a burglar are slim. Just one in seven burglaries in Wichita is solved, the lowest clearance rate of any crime. A clearance means there is an arrest, but it doesn’t always mean the person will get charged, convicted or sent to prison.
There is potential, however, for tougher action against burglars who do get caught. The District Attorney’s Office is putting more emphasis on property crimes and has launched a new effort to make sure that burglars are charged with the maximum number of crimes in which they are suspected.
In 2011, 3,979 burglaries were reported in Wichita. Police made arrests in 13.8 percent of the cases, better than the national rate of 10.8 percent for cities of similar size, according to the FBI. In 2012, when the total number of burglaries crept up to 4,065 (the breakdown was 2,854 residential, 1,058 non-residential and 153 vehicle break-ins), the burglary clearance rate increased a little, to 14.1 percent, said Wichita police Lt. Joe Cutcliff.
So far this year, burglaries are up a little — 374 this January compared with 360 in January 2012.
Why do so many burglars get away with it? Many victims fail to keep pictures of their property, serial numbers or other identifying information, which makes it hard to reunite the owner with the items if police ever recover them or the stuff ends up being spotted in pawn shops or flea markets or for sale on eBay or Craigslist.
There simply are more burglaries than can be thoroughly investigated, said Cutcliff, who oversees burglary investigations.
Even in thorough investigations, police often can’t find usable physical evidence, like fingerprints.
And even if they could catch every burglar, there isn’t enough jail or prison space to keep them.
The Wichita police burglary unit has eight detectives. The unit also is responsible for investigating vagrancy, glass breakage by pellet and BB guns, vandalism, curfew violations and trespassing.
With so many challenges to catching burglars, police stress prevention. Police say many burglaries could be prevented by basic measures, like keeping garage doors down and doors and sheds locked, and solved by neighbors looking out for one another and calling 911 when they see something suspicious. What police want is to get dispatched to a “burglary in progress” so they can catch the criminal and retrieve the homeowner’s possessions before they leave the burglar’s hands.
Police have to prioritize and focus on the burglaries where they have a chance of catching someone, Cutcliff said. An unsolved burglary can be rejuvenated by new information.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, who took office in January, has put a new focus on prosecuting burglaries and other property crimes. The strategy puts a priority on repeat burglars and their tendency to commit other crimes, like forgeries. Instead of having investigators present each single case as it occurs, piecemeal, Bennett is encouraging detectives to dig deeper and round up all the potential cases that might be made against each suspect at once. That allows prosecutors to “stack” charges and seek higher bonds and stiffer sentences. It could mean the difference between a $2,500 bond and $25,000 bond to get out of jail, and a nine-month sentence vs. a 36-month sentence. If the law calls for probation, the prosecutor can hold a longer prison sentence over the burglar’s head if they get in trouble again. The idea is to get them to change their behavior. “I can’t lock them up forever, nor do I want to,” Bennett said.
As it is, under state law, many convicted burglars get probation and go back to burglarizing, unless they have enough of a criminal history to warrant prison time. The maximum sentence for a single count of residential burglary is 34 months; in the case of an aggravated burglary, where the burglar goes into an occupied building or home, the maximum sentence is 136 months in prison. Burglars can be ordered during sentencing to compensate victims for the property they stole.
In fiscal 2012, from July 2011 through June 2012, judges statewide sentenced 357 offenders to prison for burglary, the Kansas Sentencing Commission says.
Laws and penalties for burglary need to be stiffer, said Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet. Even after deputies arrest burglars, they are back on the street so fast, “they’re out stealing again to pay the restitution,” Herzet said.
No statistics were readily available on how many burglary arrests in Wichita and across Sedgwick County result in prosecution, but Bennett said the number is limited in large part because burglars typically leave little evidence. Although a prosecutor can prove that someone took an item to a pawn shop, it doesn’t mean the prosecutor can prove who stole it.
Bennett has assigned Chief Assistant District Attorney Robert Short to lead a newly organized economic crimes unit dealing with burglaries, forgeries, auto thefts and other non-drug property crimes. It puts prosecution of economic crimes on the same rank within his office as prosecution of gang crimes and sex crimes, Bennett said.
Substance abuse is what triggers many burglars to break in and steal, he said. It’s why the system often orders burglars to get treatment. “If you could solve the substance abuse problem, I’d have to give Robert something else to do,” Bennett said.
The new emphasis recognizes that a burglar can be responsible for a wave of crime: He steals a car from a dealer lot to drive to the homes he hits. He steals a checkbook from a home and uses a check for a forgery. “And he’s doing this to support a meth habit,” Short said.
With the new emphasis on those criminals, Short said, “it has been kind of exciting, because we are hammering some of these guys.”
Across the map
If you plot where burglaries occur on a city map, based on Wichita police data, you see dots citywide. The highest number of burglaries for any address over the past five years is an apartment complex at 400 W. Central, according to the data. There were 50 burglaries there, followed by 40 at 7101 W. Shade, 31 at 9100 E. Harry, 30 at 1940 S. Woodlawn and 28 each at 2029 N. Woodlawn and 9211 E. Harry. Those locations are apartment complexes as well.
The burglars also are at work in Sedgwick County. “In the last 60 days, we have had 53 burglaries reported. So, almost one a day,” sheriff’s Capt. Greg Pollock wrote in an e-mail. Sheriff’s investigators are checking into eight cases that could be related, he said.
Since 2007, Pollock said, burglaries reported in the county appear to have increased.
Clearance rates in the county have ranged from 8 percent in 2008 to 13 percent in 2009, 41 percent in 2010, 29 percent in 2011 and 15 percent in 2012, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office staffs its property crimes section, which investigates burglaries, thefts and other property crimes, with six detectives and a sergeant.
Just as no Wichita neighborhood is immune to burglary, neither are some of the most rural areas in the state. In the wide-open stretches of Butler County, Herzet said, he is seeing more security alarms being installed and more locked gates. He believes the price of gold is driving jewelry theft. As always, guns and TVs are targeted, he said.
In some cases, teams of burglars use walkie-talkies to communicate as they descend on farmsteads.
Sometimes, burglary victims turn to private investigators for help retrieving stolen items. One of the private investigators, Emery Goad, said he gets about one such call a week. But he tells them he doesn’t usually take the cases because often “it’s expensive, it’s an effort in futility” because of the difficulties in tracking down and seizing the items. Finding a stolen 20-gauge shotgun on Craigslist is tough when there are so many 20-gauge shotguns for sale on Craigslist, Goad said.
Sometimes, a person has to get creative. Goad said he helped a woman retrieve her stolen Depression glass collection. She had relatives who were lawyers, so they sued the suspect, which allowed Goad to take a legal document to the suspect’s mother’s house and seize the stolen Depression glass from her basement.
Pawn shop perspective
Pawn shops take steps to avoid being victimized themselves, said Rebecca Herren, location manager at the A-OK pawn shop on South Broadway. A person coming in to sell something must show a valid state ID and be 18 or older, Herren said. A store employee will ask questions to try to determine whether the item, say a chain saw or electric guitar, is stolen. Herren said she has gotten adept at “reading people,” and she watches to see if the person seems nervous. There is a mandatory 14-day hold before the store can sell the item. Every night, the shop sends an e-mail to police with detailed descriptions of newly purchased items, Herren said.
If police determine that an item taken in by her shop is stolen, it gets seized, she said. If the store paid $500 for the object, she said, “we’re out $500.”
Herren said it is a misperception that pawn shops deal in a lot of stolen items; in reality, it’s a very small percentage, she said.
One of the victims of the three burglaries on the same west Wichita street said her son went to a pawn shop to share the serial number of her stolen laptop computer, in case someone brings it in. She had the laptop on her kitchen table while she was out for a while on a recent morning. She was thankful that it didn’t contain personal information.
The burglar left a large footprint on her front door as he knocked it in, despite the fact that both locks were engaged. Her landlord had the damaged door replaced.
“I rented here because I thought it was so safe, and then I find out it can happen anywhere,” she said.
As upset as she was after she discovered the break-in, she said, she decided not to let it destroy her sense of security.
“You just have to go on.”
For her safety and for the other victims, The Eagle is not identifying them or giving their addresses.
Her neighbor, one of the other burglary victims that morning, said “it couldn’t have been just one person because they hit three houses within a short period of time.”
The thieves stole his 46-inch flat-screen TV and other electronics, dumped his personal papers on the floor and went through his closets. It’s the first time in 40 years of living in Wichita that he has been burglarized.
There is a glimmer of hope: He has serial numbers of the stolen items. And a down side: He has no renter’s insurance; in the future, he said, “I will.”
Across town that same morning last week, in a southeast Wichita neighborhood, a couple found a stone in their house that had been used to break out a section of a back window, allowing the burglar to turn the latch and climb in. The homeowners estimated the loss at a couple thousand dollars.
They have alert neighbors, and they lock their doors.
“We thought our house was secure, and then they went through the window,” the man said.
The woman said the burglars left a trail of disarray where they systematically rifled through the house.
“When you go through the house, you could just see what they were thinking,” she said.
“It’s an odd feeling, having somebody in your house.”
Contributing: Hurst Laviana of The Eagle