A month ago, Wichita police warned about a troubling increase in home burglaries. Since then, the rate has climbed more. Police have recorded 2,839 residential burglaries this year through the end of November — a 10.2 percent increase over the same period last year, said Lt. Barry VonFange, who supervises burglary investigations.
Of the 2,839 burglaries at people's homes in the year's first 11 months, 384 — or 13.5 percent — occurred while residents were home.
Especially troubling is a recent spate of crimes that occurred as people slept in their homes.
The burglars had to have known that someone was home — there were cars in garages and driveways, and purses visible in the homes. The criminals came in anyway — a brazen, potentially dangerous risk that burglars rarely take, experts say.
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Last month, College Hill residents became alarmed after four instances in which burglars struck late at night or early in the morning while residents slept upstairs.
More recently, something similar occurred in Eastborough, the pocket city of about 1,100 residents nestled in east Wichita.
Eastborough police passed out a flier alerting residents that burglars hit two homes between midnight and 5 a.m. last Friday while families slept.
"They didn't even know until they got up," said Eastborough Police Chief Danny Bardezbain.
The burglars entered through unlocked doors and stole a number of items. Police urged residents to lock doors, secure windows, use security systems if they have one, and report suspicious activity to 911.
The Eastborough crimes could be the work of the same suspects who struck College Hill, Bardezbain said. College Hill and Eastborough are affluent areas about a mile apart.
"It's either the same people or copycats," he said. Any kind of burglary in Eastborough is "real rare," Bardezbain said.
In one of the College Hill burglaries, a couple with small children woke up after being alerted by their growling dog.
There have been no arrests in the College Hill crimes, but the burglaries stopped after police brought them to the public's attention, VonFange said. Police followed up with undercover surveillance.
Detectives are continuing to follow leads, VonFange said.
A burglary occurring while a resident is home is classified as an aggravated burglary and carries a stiffer punishment.
VonFange related a recent example of an aggravated burglary: A 12-year-old boy heard a noise in an attached garage, opened the door and found a burglar gathering items.
As the burglar left quickly, he told the boy, "Oh, I'm sorry, I got the wrong house."
VonFange plotted recent burglaries on a map that shows break-ins across the city from Dec. 1 through Dec. 13. Some areas have heavier concentrations.
Last month, burglars hit 24 times in Beat 25, roughly the area from Kellogg south to Pawnee and I-135 (Canal Route) west to Broadway.
Although the home burglary rate has slowed in the first two weeks of December, the overall count remains high.
VonFange said it's hard to draw conclusions about why home burglaries are increasing at a time when business burglaries have fallen steeply, by 25 percent.
This year, police suspect that many home burglaries appear to be done by groups of two to four young men — many of whom are not the usual burglary suspects.
"It's amazing to me how many (of the suspects) we've never heard of,'' he said.
A month and a half ago, police caught two men suspected of five burglaries in one day. Police had never encountered the two before while investigating burglaries, VonFange said.
Sometimes, the suspects already have spent time in prison. In one recent case, police caught a parolee suspected of working with a another man: While the parolee checked to see whether doors were unlocked, the other served as a look-out, VonFange said.
Investigators also are continuing to see that burglars are targeting TV sets, laptop computers and electronic gaming systems.
Police have a much better chance of recovering items and catching burglars if owners record serial numbers and mark possessions with their driver's license number, VonFange said.
In the heart of the gift-buying season, security experts remind people not to leave empty TV, computer or game-system boxes out visible with the trash.
Some burglaries could be prevented if residents would take simple steps, like locking doors, VonFange said.
"People get that word when it happens in their neighborhood," he said.
Burglaries often are opportunity crimes.
A thief spots an open garage door.
A resident invites in someone who notices a new big-screen TV.
"These burglars, a lot of times, they know the people who live there," VonFange said. They return to steal things when they know the resident is gone.