March 11, 2010

Burglary surge blamed on bad times

DAVID HENCH

— By

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Cumberland County sheriff’s Detective Keith Cook examines tire tread impressions for comparison with those at a crime scene at his Portland office. Of the towns patrolled by the sheriff’s office, Raymond has been hardest hit.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Staff Writer

Cumberland County suburbs have been hit by a sharp increase in home burglaries in recent months, a trend that's reflected to varying degrees throughout Maine.

Authorities say the downturn in the economy, combined with chronic social problems such as drug abuse, is behind the spike.

Crime tends to come in spurts. Copper, for example, was a popular target for thieves last year -- this year, they have their sights set on rural homes.

''We're attributing it to the economy,'' said Capt. Don Goulet, head of Cumberland County's sheriff's detectives. ''The people we're dealing with are not working. The ones we've arrested, they were working last year.''

From December to February, Cumberland County's detectives investigated twice the number of burglaries as during the same period a year ago, 54 compared with 27. A rash of burglaries in the Fryeburg, Denmark and Bridgton areas led authorities throughout that region to form a burglary task force for sharing information.

The increase in home burglaries appears to be a rural phenomenon. Portland police say they've seen no discernible increase, though robberies -- stealing from a person rather than from a home or other property -- seem to be on the rise in the city.

The burglaries share many similarities.

nThey have been happening during the day when residents are at work, and typically the houses targeted are separated from neighbors by woods that help conceal the crimes. Investigators say having some privacy helps the burglars, possibly explaining the rural nature of the recent trend.

nThe burglars have shown little finesse. Many of the houses in Cumberland County were locked. The burglars smashed doors or windows to gain entry, grabbed cash, jewelry and electronics -- often stuffing the items into residents' pillowcases -- and left quickly, Goulet said.

Of the towns patrolled by the Cumberland County sheriff, Raymond has been hit hardest, with 14 home burglaries in the three months ending in February. But the increase has been felt in other parts of the state as well.

Maine State Police troopers covering Franklin, Somerset and Kennebec counties reported increases in house break-ins, from a combined 148 in 2007 to 188 in 2008. Similar increases were reported by troopers covering Hancock and Washington counties.

Troopers responsible for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties saw a 19 percent jump in burglaries in 2008 over the previous year, although the pace has slowed this year.

Investigators with the state police, Oxford and Cumberland county sheriffs, Bridgton, Fryeburg and Conway, N.H., police departments started meeting this month on burglaries.

''We created a task force because the burglaries are regional,'' said Bridgton Chief David Lyons. ''We're all getting hit about the same time and there are similarities.''

The task force shares information about methods, recovered items and descriptions of vehicles and suspects.

BURGLARIES OFTEN RELATED

Police say strings of burglaries are often the result of a single person or group of people.

''What usually happens is it comes in a rash. One area will get hit and we'll get nine or 10 of them, then the people responsible for the burglaries will move on to another area,'' said Lt. Gary Fecteau of the York County Sheriff's Office.

Fecteau recalled the case of Roy Leet, 42, of Cape Elizabeth, who was charged in November in connection with the theft of about $65,000 during some 40 burglaries stretching from Eliot to Cumberland.

''He did so many burglaries he can't remember them all,'' Fecteau said. ''We spent days on end driving him around so he could point out the ones he could remember.''

Cumberland County detectives note that the pace of burglaries has slowed since the start of the month, when Robert Hall, 26, was arrested and charged with a burglary in Windham.

Hall previously served two years in prison for felony theft in connection with laptop computers stolen from a high school.

When he was stopped by police on March 5 for driving with a suspended license, he handed the officer a license that had been stolen from a home in Raymond, said Deputy John Fournier, the arresting officer. In the car and in Hall's pockets were items taken during other burglaries, Fournier said.

Hall is now being investigated in connection with many of the Raymond burglaries, as well as ones in other communities, in which thousands of dollars worth of items were stolen, said the lead detective on the case, Detective Brian Ackerman.

Hall denies the allegation and says he has been targeted because he is a convicted felon.

A major lead in the case came from an alert resident.

A Raymond resident said he answered a knock on the door by a man asking if the resident had seen the man's missing dog.

The resident was aware of recent burglaries and reported the contact, and a description of the man's car, to police. Police stopped a car matching the description and arrested Hall.

Police say it is common for daytime burglars to knock first and have a story prepared. Usually, they leave their car a distance from the house.

Lt. David DeGruchy said the story is familiar. He was home sick in Gray one day in February and his wife answered the door -- a man asking about his missing dog. Later, his neighbor's home was broken into, DeGruchy said.

''We're kind of thinking we might have dodged a bullet by being home,'' DeGruchy said.

Hall contends that he had been out looking for his missing dogs -- Daisy, a Labrador retriever, and Ruckus, a Pomeranian -- and that he put up posters. He went as far as Sanford following up on possible sightings, he said.

Hall currently is charged with a single burglary that occurred in Windham on Jan. 12. Police say someone gave him a ride on Route 115 just after the break-in and reported that he was carrying sacks identical to ones used to steal merchandise from a home on Elmwood Drive.

Taken from the home were several cameras, cash and personal checks, identification, baseball cards, a Nintendo game system and jewelry.

Investigators have been working with local pawn shops and consulting security video, and plan to bring more charges this week.

Hall also was arrested on an earlier charge of trying to steal MP3 players from Kohl's department store in Westbrook and assaulting a clerk who tried to stop him.

Police say most burglars have long criminal histories.

Hall said he has been shoveling roofs with a friend to earn money in the winter and works as a roofer in the warmer months, but said it is hard for someone with a criminal record to be legitimately successful.

''It's definitely harder for a felon to get a job,'' he said. ''That's why we get more under-the-table jobs or lower pay.'' Hall said he has two children and that his girlfriend and the children have had to move in with her mother since he was arrested.

Bridgton's chief Lyons agrees with Goulet that the economy plays a role in the burglary surge.

''There's less free money out there,'' he said. ''There's a lot of people who live off other people by getting money from family or from friends, and a lot of those people don't have that spare money to pass on. The people they've leeched off don't have the money to give anymore, that's where the economy enters into it.''

Opinions are mixed about whether a bad economy turns otherwise decent people into crooks, but crime often rises when unemployment is high.

''Across the country, law enforcement is concerned and has been seeing increases in everything from property crimes to workplace violence to domestic violence, and there's a pretty strong feeling that the economy is a strong contributing factor,'' said Dan Rattner, a visiting scholar at Northeastern University who specializes in security and criminal justice management and law enforcement intelligence.

''Somebody who's kind of on the edge and feels a sense of desperation may do something they would not ordinarily do,'' he said. ''That doesn't make it less of a crime but may explain why we do see some increases.''

Cumberland County Detective Regan Goan recently arrested a man who allegedly had broken into a seasonal home in Raymond and was living in it. He stole everything inside, including pictures and linens, and was storing them in a hotel room, Goan said. He told police he planned to use the material to furnish his own home when he got one.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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