Crime & Courts

Serial burglars targeted

The burglary suspect doesn't know it, but on a recent weekday, police are watching. The 26-year-old suspect is out on bond after being charged with two felony burglaries and two misdemeanor thefts. Within a week of the surveillance, he will be charged in Sedgwick County District Court with three more burglaries and three more thefts.

Undercover officers spy as the suspect walks and jogs from the 1600 block of North Market a block east to Broadway and several blocks south to Auto Motel, with its 1950s-style geometric sign. He knocks at one motel room, briefly stands face to face with someone, goes to a second room, then ambles 100 yards south for a quick stop inside Mark 8 Inn, where the sign advertises single rooms from $26.49.

The recent undercover operation — observed by an Eagle reporter and photographer — is part of a push by Wichita police to reduce burglaries citywide. After a nearly 10 percent increase in home burglaries last year, police are targeting serial burglars.

Police see profile

During seven hours of surveillance that day, police don't catch the suspect breaking into anything.

Still, they take special note of one observation: On his jaunt back from the motels — where police have made undercover drug buys in other cases — he appears to keep something tightly clenched in one hand.

To police Lt. James Espinoza, the man leading the surveillance, the suspect fits the profile. Police think he is a repeat burglar with a drug habit.

Most burglars steal to pay for drugs, usually cocaine or methamphetamine, police say.

In a May 28 affidavit requesting a public defender, the suspect wrote that he was unemployed. In an affidavit about a month later, he said he has worked at a Sonic drive-in within the past six months. He said he has received $200 monthly in food stamps within the last six months.

Wichita residential burglaries have steadily risen since around 2005, said police Lt. Barry Von Fange, who oversees burglary investigations. Von Fange noted that during the same period that home burglaries have risen, consumers have filled their homes with flat-screen televisions, electronic games and laptop computers. Most burglars focus on those three items.

According to court records, among the items the suspect was accused of stealing: a laptop computer, video game player, DVD player and remote controls.

The Eagle is not naming the man to allow police to talk freely in a case that has not yet gone to trial.

Goal: Catch in the act

The assignment to watch the man begins one recent morning in a squad room of the Patrol North station near 21st and Hillside.

Espinoza, a stocky 38-year-old, is dressed for the undercover work in shorts and a North High School alumni T-shirt. The six veteran officers he will supervise during the surveillance also wear undercover clothes. Espinoza tells the officers about how they will watch and follow the man.

The suspect is out of jail on a $5,000 bond after being charged with a May 17 apartment burglary in the 900 block of West 29th Street and a May 24 or May 25 shed burglary in the 1900 block of North Park Place.

Espinoza says the goal is to catch the man committing a burglary so there will be another charge against him —increasing the chance that he will be convicted and spend time in prison.

Sentencing depends on a person's criminal history, but probation is the standard burglary sentence under state law unless a person has been convicted of two or more "person" felonies — those crimes that directly harm a person, says Chief Deputy District Attorney Kim Parker. A home burglary is a person felony.

At the time the surveillance begins, on June 24, the man is facing one "person" felony charge for a burglary of a dwelling. A day later, he will be charged with two more "person" felonies, for burglaries of two more dwellings. Then on June 30, he will be charged with a fourth person felony for another home burglary.

But the man has yet to go to trial, so it's too early to draw conclusions about whether he is guilty or about any sentence he could face if he is found guilty. It depends not only on whether he is convicted, but on the timing of any convictions and how they are counted.

Parker says she favors increased sentences for burglary. She says a veteran prosecutor told her years ago: "You will find that the most fearful victim is a person who has had someone break into their home."

"It's such an invasion of privacy," Parker says.

The watch begins

The morning the surveillance begins, Espinoza tells his officers that the man uses drugs, that he is suspected of recently stealing a couple of expensive, vintage bicycles and that he goes to King's Pawn Shop on North Broadway, a few blocks from his home. Police will watch for pawn shop sales slips of anything the man sells.

Police suspect the man of stealing close to home. One of his alleged victims is a next-door neighbor, court records say.

"I want full coverage of that house (the man's home) in case he pops out the back," Espinoza tells the officers.

The surveillance will take the six officers away from patrol work that day and take Espinoza away from other supervisory duties.

But the assignment is important, Espinoza says, because burglary is a crime that damages people's sense of security where they most need to feel safe. People are more apt to be a victim of a burglary than a violent crime.

North Patrol has been conducting two to four special assignments a month aimed at serial burglars.

After the briefing, the officers and Espinoza set up an undercover perimeter around the house.

Espinoza stops his unmarked sedan on a side street near 13th and Broadway and peers down an alley.

"That's one of my guys," he says, referring to an undercover officer standing in the shadows.

The weekday surveillance makes sense: Many burglars strike during the day when people are at work.

Before long, someone notices an undercover vehicle and calls 911 to report a vehicle that does not look familiar.

Another world

Surveillance has dead time. While officers watch the house, Espinoza notices other things.

Driving down North Broadway, he passes a side street where a woman struts along in tight clothes. He suspects she is prostitute.

Behind a church, he spots and calls in a report of gang graffiti.

Driving down a littered alley, he pauses at a carport where a young couple lie curled up together on a bare mattress, dead asleep.

He works in a world that many Wichitans never see.

Later that day, a few streets west of Broadway, he spots a pit bull running loose near children, gets out and orders the owner to keep the dog confined; he calls in an officer to follow up.

'He's excited... '

Around noon, about four hours after they started their surveillance, officers see their burglary suspect.

The suspect steps onto his front porch and stretches.

Espinoza parks in an alley and pulls out binoculars.

The officers watch as the man goes next door, knocks and walks in when the door opens.

Around 12:40 p.m., he returns to his house. Moments later he heads south on Market.

"There he is right there," Espinoza says.

The man heads east on 13th, south on Broadway and begins to walk and run to the motels.

By around 1:15 p.m., he heads back north on Broadway, with his one hand clenched. After crossing 13th, he playfully leaps up and pats a speed limit sign.

"He's excited about doing something," Espinoza says, staying a few blocks away from the man. "We want to keep him in a perimeter."

By around 1:20 p.m., the man is back home. About 30 minutes later, he steps out of and back into his house.

The next day, police set out bait — a bicycle placed near his home — to see whether he would take it. At one point, he walks over, looks at the bike and walks away.

At 4 p.m. on the second day of surveillance, police arrest the man on a warrant — charging him with four more crimes: a June 17 burglary of an apartment in the 100 block of East 15th North; a theft; a May 25 burglary of a house next door to his in the 1600 block of North Market; and the theft of a weed eater, saw and leaf blower.

Then, this past Wednesday, he gets a third set of charges: an earlier burglary, on Jan. 27, of the same apartment on East 15th, and the theft of a digital camera, cell phone, DVD player and iPod equipment.

Now facing the second and third set of charges, the man is back in jail, this time on a higher total bond — $35,000.