Crime & Courts

Brazen burglars strike in College Hill

While a College Hill couple and their two small children slept upstairs early last Sunday, burglars went room to room downstairs.

The family might have slept through it if their dog hadn't growled. The husband went down to see what was wrong, felt a breeze, saw a door open, shouted for his wife to call 911 and retreated. While he remained armed and standing guard, she called 911 and said they had an intruder in their home.

Because a 911 dispatcher mishandled the call, 18 1/2 minutes passed before officers arrived — an eternity for the family.

Their experience is part of a wider story: The burglary is one of three in the College Hill neighborhood since Nov. 6 that occurred when residents were home. Across the city, residential burglaries are up 7 percent this year through the end of October, police say.

What alarms College Hill residents is the brazen nature of the recent crimes. The burglars don't seem to care that people are home, and that creates a dangerous situation, a burglary expert says.

A chance for violence

Burglaries violate people's sense of privacy and security. Still, they are almost always nonconfrontational crimes.

So burglaries where people are home are "extremely unusual" and pose a "very dangerous situation," said Paul Cromwell, a Wichita State University criminal justice professor who has interviewed burglars and studied their motives for 20 years.

"I think there's a very good chance that this sort of thing could result in violence" — because of the potential for an encounter between burglars and residents or an incident where a startled resident mistakenly shoots a loved one, Cromwell said.

Neighbors in College Hill — an area appreciated for its stately old homes and tree-lined streets — are stepping up security measures.

One resident who slept through a recent burglary of his home said: "My shotgun's loaded now, and it's accessible."

For their privacy and security, The Eagle is not identifying burglary victims.

Another resident, who has lived in the neighborhood for 39 years, said he doesn't remember another string of people breaking into occupied homes.

"So far, nothing bad has happened," he said. "But what if there was an encounter?"

He and his wife are doing what they can to not be easy targets. She has started tucking her purse out of sight while at home. They no longer leave keys sitting out. They keep their cars locked, even in the garage.

"I wouldn't say we're frightened," he said. "We just have a heightened concern and awareness.

"We love our neighborhood. Nothing will change that."

Waiting for help

The man whose family awoke to their dog's growling last Sunday discovered that the burglars had been at their home long enough to steal items from vehicles in the detached garage and from nooks in the kitchen, dining room and living room.

The burglars weren't intimidated by the dim exterior lighting or a squeaky back door. A rare oversight resulted in the door being unlocked that night.

The man and his wife were upset that they had to wait so long for help to arrive. The intruders were gone by the time police "cleared" the house with weapons drawn. It's not known whether the burglars were still in the house when the man woke up and discovered the door open.

Still, he said, "It has taught us that maybe protection is not as close at hand as we would like to think it is."

He later learned that police arrived six minutes after being dispatched to the scene, but there was about a 12-minute delay before that because a dispatcher had incorrectly reclassified the 911 call.

Diane Gage, emergency communications director for Sedgwick County, said a dispatcher should have continued to treat the call as a "burglary in progress," not a "burglary that just occurred," and should have been more aggressive in finding officers to respond.

Younger suspects?

Over the years, College Hill has had its share of serial burglars partly because it is an affluent area, said Wichita police Lt. Barry Von Fange, head of the department's burglary section.

Studies have shown that younger criminals — the likely suspects in the College Hill burglaries — tend to commit crimes within a mile of where they live, Cromwell said.

To Cromwell and Von Fange, it appears that whoever is entering the occupied homes is probably younger. They are taking risks that more experienced burglars would avoid.

Nationwide, the average age of burglars is 17, Cromwell said.

Many young burglars are "into thrill-seeking. They're adrenaline junkies," he said.

Then again, he said, it's possible the College Hill burglars could be taking so many chances and not thinking rationally because they are high on meth, most burglars' drug of choice.

Interviews of burglars show that the vast majority commit crimes to buy drugs or alcohol, experts say.

One reason burglars don't tend to be armed is they're inclined to sell any gun they steal so they can buy drugs or alcohol, Cromwell said.

Although burglars are rarely violent, nationwide statistics show that burglars are becoming somewhat more violent than in the past, Cromwell said. That could be because of increased use of stimulant drugs, he said.

'Knew we were home'

At a briefing for reporters last Monday, Von Fange said that since the first of the month, police have recorded nine residential burglaries in Beat 31, about half of which is College Hill. The College Hill boundaries are Kellogg north to Central and Hillside east to Oliver.

Five of the nine burglaries occurred in College Hill, both north and south of Douglas. Von Fange said it's likely that the recent College Hill burglaries have been committed by the same people.

Even before the burglaries, police had been reminding residents to take basic security measures, including keeping garage doors closed, and doors and windows locked.

A woman who lives with her family at one of the College Hill homes that was burglarized recently said the intruders forced their way through a locked door while the family slept upstairs.

It occurred between midnight and 3 a.m. on a weeknight. There were three cars in the driveway.

"So they knew we were home," the woman said.

They didn't discover the break-in until the next morning, when she found a screen door propped open and one of the cars gone.

Still, she is thankful.

"You know, they took all our stuff, but God took care of us."

Positive development

A few blocks away, another College Hill couple said they and their "small, yappy dog" slept through a Nov. 6 burglary of their home. Someone forced open a family room window.

Her husband discovered that both of their vehicles had been stolen from the attached garage.

"I was mad as hell," the woman said.

Her husband said he is keeping his shotgun handy.

Police found the man's new truck at 11th and Harding. Officers found her SUV in Chisholm Creek in Grove Park. Someone sent the vehicle over an embankment.

At their home, the husband is installing more locks and putting up motion detectors outside.

"And I know that others in the block are going to do that," he said.

"This block is being lighted up like a Christmas tree," his wife said.

Word of the crimes has spread through the neighborhood, where residents regularly exchange phone and e-mail lists.

Bill Hess, president of College Hill Neighborhood Association, said the burglaries are a worry because "it's a crime against people, not just property."

Like many of his neighbors, he's a long-time College Hill resident.

"I would not want to live anywhere else," Hess said. "That's why I want to protect it."

Although there were no arrests in the recent crimes through Friday, there has been a promising development.

Since Von Fange's media briefing Monday and the resulting publicity about the burglaries, as of Friday there hadn't been a single additional burglary reported in College Hill, although another burglary occurred Tuesday in Beat 31 west of College Hill.

Burglars "don't want to come where people are waiting for them," Von Fange said.