Break in illusions

Burglary victims may think they’re safe, until it’s too late

Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining burglary trends in the central Kenai Peninsula. Monday’s story will look into what damage and thefts typically result from burglaries.

  Traci Gonzalez at Alaska's Best Water demonstrates her company's keypad-controlled security system. Finding oneself a victim of burglary is, in part, a numbers game, but local law enforcement officials offer some tips for keeping your possessions in your possession. Photo by M. Scott Moon


Traci Gonzalez at Alaska's Best Water demonstrates her company's keypad-controlled security system. Finding oneself a victim of burglary is, in part, a numbers game, but local law enforcement officials offer some tips for keeping your possessions in your possession.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Late one morning in August, Traci Gonzalez was hit with an unpleasant realization at work. Gonzalez said the day started the same as any other at Alaska’s Best Water in Kenai, where she manages the office.

“There was nothing out of the ordinary,” she said. “Everything looked fine.”

But when she went to put some petty cash away from the day before, she found her money bag was gone. When she checked for cash in the till she found it, too, was missing. When all she could find left of the business’s money was coins, Gonzalez knew the business had been struck by burglars.

“They went through all the money bags I have here,” she said. “Every bill that they could find they grabbed.”

Gonzalez estimates the business lost $3,000 and said she was surprised when she walked around the business and found the burglar’s point of entry. A garage door had been pushed open just wide enough for someone to slip inside.

“It was an automatic garage door and for some reason they were able to push it up,” she said. “It was fairly easily pushed up. Now we’ve installed a lock through the door.”

Alaska’s Best Water’s experience resonates with many other businesses where burglars often show little interest in merchandise.

“We’ve had quite a few business break-ins lately and they tend to steal cash,” said Scott Briggs, a property crimes investigator for Alaska State Troopers.

But burglaries vary widely, striking both businesses and homes, and can target everything from lawn mowers to cash drawers. Alaska statutes define a crime as a burglary when someone has unlawfully entered a structure, such as business or a house, to commit a felony or theft.

A quick glance at troopers records suggests burglary rates on the Kenai Peninsula are holding steady, with troopers having responded to 228 peninsula burglaries in 2003, 205 in 2004, 216 in 2005 and 154 so far in 2006.

Although recent data comparing the number of residential and commercial burglaries troopers have responded to is not yet available, Kenai police records show they have responded to more residential than commercial burglaries over the last four years with the exception of 2005, when Kenai police responded to 23 residential and 23 commercial burglaries.

Although Kenai police have received more residential than commercial burglary reports, many commonly reported residential burglaries do not conform with popular ideas of a what constitutes a burglary, said Gus Sandahl, Kenai investigations sergeant.

A theft from a residence, for example, would be considered a burglary even if there was no forceable entry and only one item was stolen. And in these types of burglaries, the thief is often someone the victim knows, Sandahl said.

“Might be someone they know that violates their trust and goes in and takes one or two particular items,” he said.

While most reported burglaries do involve theft, Alaska statutes also define burglary to include crimes committed during the unlawful entry of a structure.

“If you enter a building with the intent to vandalize it, that’s a burglary. If you enter a building with the intent to commit a sexual assault, that’s a burglary,” Sandahl said.

Although troopers records suggest overall burglary rates are holding steady, local law enforcers would like to see rates go down and say businesses and residents need to take greater responsible for preventing burglaries and in helping law enforcement officers recover property.

Both businesses and homeowners, for example, can go a long way in protecting their property by installing a surveillance system, said Briggs.

“The alarm companies alert us immediately,” he said. “And that gets someone to come running right now, and the chances of intercepting somebody once an alarm has gone off are way greater than without an alarm.”

In addition, law enforcement officers also recommend safes for storing large amounts of cash or valuable such as jewelry or expensive firearms.

Businesses may want to let burglars know they will not find cash readily accessible if they break in, said Sgt. Dane Gilmore.

“If they have the cash register where it’s out there and easily seen through the window it’s a good idea, if they’re clearing it out at night, to leave the drawer open,” he said. “People will look in and say ‘this one’s empty, no point in breaking into this place’. Might save (the business) a window, at least.”

In residences, where property may be more likely to be stolen, Briggs and Gilmore urged people to document their property by writing down serial numbers and taking photos.

Unfortunately people rarely document their property, making it difficult for law enforcement officers to recover stolen items.

“The pawn shops are cooperative with Briggs,” Gilmore said. “But they can only do so much if we don’t have serial numbers.”

Gilmore said photographs also help tremendously. In addition, Briggs recommended marking property with initials, but not in an obvious location where they can be ground away or otherwise removed. Instead, he said to hide the initials where only you will know where to find them.

Without some means of identification it can sometimes be near impossible to recover commonly stolen items, such as tools.

“Take for instance a DeWalt drill. We have hundreds of those that are stolen all the time,” Briggs said. “Well, everybody on the peninsula has a DeWalt drill.”

To prevent burglaries from occurring in the first place, a resident shouldn’t leave their home for extended periods of time without asking someone to watch it, keep the driveway plowed and let outsiders know the home isn’t being ignored.

Briggs and Gilmore said burglars are probably more familiar with their targets than people might guess.

“A lot of the burglaries are tied into people that have been there,” Briggs said. “They come there during garage sales and see something there that they want or they come there when people have open house.”

A burglar is likely to be experienced, since few burglars stop at breaking into just one home or business.

Gilmore said it is unusual to catch a burglar who has committed just one burglary. Instead, investigations usually reveal the criminal has been involved in a series of burglaries, he said.

Although troopers records appear to indicate burglary rates are holding steady, burglaries may be becoming more thorough.

“It seems like we’re getting more burglaries now where they’re taking more things,” Briggs said. “Now they’re going in and cleaning out whole houses. I mean they’re taking the pictures off the walls, the blankets, the furniture, they’re taking washers and dryers.”

Gonzalez said that what she has taken away from the burglary that occurred at Alaska’s Best Water is that several layers of protection are better than one. Alaska’s Best Water had a security system and thought they were covered. But although the alarm system’s alarm code flashed after the robbery occurred it did not dial out to alert authorities as it had been designed to, she said. Now the business is installing a safe and ensuring all of the doors are securely locked.

“It’s just so frustrating,” she said. “You’ve got people who work hard to make money and make things happen, and then you have someone just going and taking it away because they want to.”

Burglary prevention 101

Law enforcement officers offer the following tips to protect yourself from burglars:

· Install a surveillance system.

· Use a safe to store cash and valuables.

· In businesses, leave the till open at night.

· In residences, mark your belongings and document them with photos and by writing serial numbers.

· Don’t leave a home looking unoccupied. Have the snow plowed, put lights on a timer and have someone stop by regularly to check on it.

· If hosting a garage sale or open house, hide valuables from view.

Editor’s note: Soldotna police did not return calls requesting burglary statistics.

Burglars rarely stop at 1

Law enforcement officers making an arrest in a burglary case often discover the crime is not an isolated event, but part of a spree committed by the same individual or group of individuals.

Frequently, solving one burglary case also closes others, and may halt a wave of burglaries spreading through a community.

In 2005, for instance, several waves of commercial burglary sprees bumped commercial burglaries in Kenai up from eight in 2004 to 23 in 2005.

Of the 2005 burglary sprees, the most notorious linked a group of five 18-year-old thieves to a series of burglaries that occurred in the Kenai-Soldotna area.

“They were not the only group responsible for the 2005 spike, but they contributed significantly,” said Kenai Police Sgt. Gus Sandahl.

The arrests occurred after the Kenai Police Department, Soldotna Police Department and Alaska State Troopers served multiple search warrants at six residences in Sterling, Soldotna and Kenai, and recovered stolen commercial property from all six residences.

“That was a big case. We had a lot of recovered property staked up in our garage,” Sandahl said.

Several major 2005 commercial burglaries remain unsolved, but Sandahl said several of the remaining cases appear to be linked and that solving one may lead to solving others.

The notorious 2005 string of burglaries linked to the five 18-year-olds followed close on the heals of a second notorious burglary spree that occurred in 2004.

In 2004, two Kenai residents, one 18-year-old and one 16-year-old, were arrested in connection with a string of vandalism, thefts and burglaries that took place in the area surrounding North Forest Drive in Kenai.

The two thieves targeted unlocked residences and vehicles, a trend Sandahl said he believes is becoming more common among thieves.

A second notable burglary spree also ended in 2004 when a 30-year-old Nikiski man was arrested for a string of burglaries occurring in the Island Lake Road area of Nikiski. Based on information received during their investigation into six burglaries, Alaska State Troopers served a search warrant of the Nikiski man’s house and recovered a large stash of stolen goods.

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