October 19, 2013

Smash-and-grab car burglaries rising in southern Maine

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Abbie Teachout said it wasn’t the $20 stolen that angered her, or even the $100 she had to pay to repair the passenger-side window that was smashed when her purse was stolen from her car last month at Range Pond in Poland.

It was the hours she spent having the window fixed, her car and house locks changed, and her credit cards canceled and replaced. Replacing the locks in her car alone lost her a day.

“Realistically, I bet I spent eight hours just trying to get that piece of it,” Teachout said. “I think I’m out $600 and they walked away with $20.”

Teachout’s experience is far from unique.

Police in southern Maine are investigating a series of car burglaries in which a thief smashed a window and grabbed a purse or electronics from a car parked at a state park or some other place where people get out to walk.

Since June, there have been 31 car burglaries within the Cumberland County sheriff’s jurisdiction, according to Lt. Donald Foss, head of detectives for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff’s office convened a meeting last week with investigators from several surrounding police agencies, including Windham, Westbrook, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Scarborough, Portland – and the Maine State Police.

Most of the burglaries involved smash-and-grabs, the most recent taking place on Sunday at Sebago Lake State Park.

Sometimes, as in that case, valuables like a pocketbook have been left in plain sight. Other times, the items were hidden.

Teachout said she had hidden her purse before getting out of her car, but because the thief targeted only Teachout’s car that day, police believe someone was watching the parking lot and saw her lean down to hide the purse on the floor of the passenger side, a tactic common enough that thieves know to look for it.

The break-ins typically occur in areas where people go for walks, usually leaving their valuables behind, such as a beach or hiking trails.

People have reported cars burglarized at the Mountain Division Trails in Standish, Windham and Westbrook, at Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, Land’s End in Harpswell and Baxter Boulevard in Portland.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re targeting places like the Maine Mall, but any location where people would be inclined to leave purses behind they’re targeting,” Foss said. Harpswell alone has experienced four or five in the past week, he said.

Teachout said she had gone to Range Pond to take her dogs for a walk. She parked a little distance away from other cars so getting the dogs in and out of the car wouldn’t be a problem,

When she returned after an hour, her purse, which had been hidden on the floor, was gone, but not the GPS that was next to it.

Capt. Raymond Lafrance of the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office, which covers Poland, said car burglaries are more prevalent than they were just three or four years ago, prompting his office to issue a press release warning about the car burglaries at Range Pond.

In most car burglaries, the victims leave their cars unlocked, allowing someone checking for unlocked doors to steal change from the ashtray or anything else that is visible.

But there has been a noticeable spike in the number of cases where locked cars have had windows smashed, Foss said. It’s a step a thief isn’t likely to take unless he knows there is something valuable inside.

Police thought they had solved the burglaries when a known car burglar was arrested in mid-September, but the break-ins have since continued, Foss said.

Foss said there’s no particular day of the week or time of day that has been more prone to burglaries, making it harder to investigate. Police have stepped up their monitoring of parking areas that have previously been targeted.

Foss said people can help by either locking their valuables in a trunk or leaving them home when planning a hike.

Teachout says she’s changed her routine following her own bad experience. Her car doesn’t have a trunk she can lock her belongings inside, so she just doesn’t bring them.

“I stopped carrying a purse,” she said. “I have this little pouch that’s making its way around with me.”

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

dhench@pressherald.com

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