Crime & Courts

Voters complained, so DA focused more on property crimes

Lawrence Johnson of Bel Aire got taken by a contractor thief last year who pocketed $739 and then did no work on Johnson’s patio. The district attorney’s office has put on a serious push to get criminal convictions in property crime cases.
Lawrence Johnson of Bel Aire got taken by a contractor thief last year who pocketed $739 and then did no work on Johnson’s patio. The district attorney’s office has put on a serious push to get criminal convictions in property crime cases. The Wichita Eagle

Lawrence Johnson got robbed of $739 last summer.

He paid a landscape contractor to do dirt and concrete work in the backyard of his Bel Aire home.

The contractor took his money, made excuses and did nothing. Johnson pleaded with him for two months before going to police.

“He robbed us,” Johnson said.

“I was a wreck. I had told my wife to put the check in that clown’s hands. I felt like I’d let her down. And I had to keep taking a lot of time out of my day, day after day, to e-mail, to call.”

A Sedgwick County jury convicted the landscaping contractor, James Arnold, of four counts of theft on Jan. 19. (He had treated other customers similarly, stealing more than $8,000 from residents of Wichita, Bel Aire and Maize, prosecutors said.)

Johnson still doesn’t have his money back, but so far, he’s chosen to be patient.

Restitution will be part of Arnold’s sentencing discussion, District Attorney Marc Bennett said.

If this case had come about before 2012, Bennett said, it might have been more dismaying to Johnson than it already is.

Since 2012, Bennett said, he has revamped how his office handles property crimes, after voters gave him an earful.

Frustration

When Bennett first ran for district attorney in 2012, voters kept bringing up property crimes and how frustrating it was to deal with their court cases.

Property crimes upset the lives of more people than higher-profile homicides or armed robberies, Bennett said.

One voter told him, for example, that after he was victimized in a simple property crime, he got served no less than 17 subpoenas over the course of the case, ordering him to appear in court to testify.

This happened in other property cases, because prosecutors in the district attorney’s office kept asking the court for continuances, Bennett said.

When the case resumed, prosecutors had to send subpoenas again, summoning witnesses.

Prosecutors not only routinely asked for trial continuances, they also diverted cases to civil court.

Bennett, who had specialized in sexual abuse cases as a deputy district attorney, decided to give those crimes more focus.

So when he took office in January 2013, he pulled aside Robert Short, one of his prosecutors, and asked him to help fix the problem.

Short complied.

Dedicated team

He let police agencies know they were going to focus more on property crimes.

“We spoke to everybody, including small-town chiefs of police, and told them that from now on, when they got these cases, we’ll take them very seriously.”

Bennett then built a team of three other prosecutors around Short and told them to focus only on property crimes.

Before this move, prosecutors might be assigned property cases along with higher-profile cases such as rape, robbery and aggravated assault. There was a tendency then to focus on cases involving violence, Bennett said.

“I’m not implying that this office never filed property cases before, because we did,” Bennett said. “But prosecutors, if they’ve got a rape case and an aggravated robbery case ... the forgery case might get pushed down to the bottom of the pile. But property crimes are all that Robert’s group does.”

“Any case that involves money or property, we’re the nerds,” Short said of his group. “Those cases touch a ton of people. They’re important to peoples’ lives and businesses.”

Of the 3,570 criminal cases the District Attorney’s office charged last year, nearly a third – 1,086 cases – included at least one count of burglary, theft, forgery or identity theft.

Bennett decided the job or prosecuting property crimes required a specialist.

“I put Robert in charge, and not just as window dressing,” Bennett said. “He’s got the temperament for this work. Not everybody does.”

Victims are getting more money back, Bennett said. And restitution is growing year by year.

In 2014, for example, victims got more than $75,000 in restitution. In 2015, more than $192,000. Last year, nearly $430,000.

Other benefits surfaced.

“It took a lot of work to delay those cases and then write all those requests for more subpoenas,” Bennett said. “I thought if we just dealt with the cases up front instead, it would be better for the victims and would save my people a lot of work.”

Office productivity went up.

“Once it became clear to everybody that we were serious about this, we were able to close more cases without having to go to trial,” he said. His office agreed to 175 property crime plea bargains in 2013, 231 plea bargains in 2014 and 302 plea bargains in 2015.

“Early resolutions mean prosecutors have more time to focus on tougher cases,” Bennett added.

Short’s aggressive pursuit of these cases turned up one more benefit that intrigued Bennett.

“A lot of these defendants became much more eager to offer restitution to victims,” Bennett said.

“That doesn’t mean we offered a lesser sentence if they paid. But it got more restitution for victims.”

More prosecutions

Short’s group increased criminal prosecutions without going after honest business people, Short said.

“The local economy needs the little guy to offer a price alternative to the larger companies,” Short said. “But if you take money from customers and do not do the work, we are going to take a look at it.”

One outcome from Johnson’s backyard case: He trusts people less now.

He built a good life working at Textron and built a home and a life with his wife.

The thief stole $739 and peace of mind.

He’d wanted to put a nice new grill on that patio but can’t do that now until restitution comes.

He has hesitated to trust another contractor, but ended up doing it.

He hired a contractor late last year who did the dirt and patio work honestly, and on time.

“I told him what the other guy had done to us,” Johnson said.

“He said he makes his living from people trusting him enough to hire him,” Johnson said.

“He said that kind of behavior hurts all contractors.”

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl

  Comments