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A year of targeting burglars in Elgin

By Mary Beth

January 1, 2013

ELGIN – It was almost exactly a year ago when Police Chief Jeff Swoboda announced that 2012 would be the year the city went to war against burglary. And using a multifront approach that includes new city and state rules about selling used property, the offensive seems to be making progress.

"We know we can do better, but we have seen a steady decrease" in the number of home and vehicle break-ins, said Sgt. Adam Schuessler, a detective who was assigned to work on burglaries full-time as part of the war.

Deputy Police Chief Cecil Smith said final stats for this year's crimes are not yet available, but "we have increased our ability to locate stolen materials and to solve these crimes ... and the chief has put a mandate on each officer to do additional patrolling and to work with the community" to make homes, businesses and cars more burglar-proof.

"When someone breaks into your home, it is a painful and frightening invasion of your personal space" where you're supposed to feel safe, Smith noted. "It troubles you more than if you were in a car accident or even if you were the victim of a snatch-and-grab on the street."

The bust-a-burglar campaign began when crime statistics for 2011 were announced in January. City leaders could proudly claim that the number of offenses had gone down in almost every category. Even the previously troublesome areas of strong-armed robbery and vehicle burglaries were down.

But the one glaring exception was burglaries to homes and businesses, which shot up 31 percent over their 2010 level. The owners of 564 Elgin homes and businesses reported being burglarized last year — an average of about 1½ per day.

Since then, the department has been fighting the problem with four strategies:

Before any break-in: Doing summer "walk and talks" through neighborhoods and appearing as guest speakers in front of various community groups, Smith said, police have been trying to teach the homeowner and the renter about how to prevent break-ins in the first place. That includes things as simple as making sure your doors — including the door from your garage into your home — are locked, to things as subtle as making your home looks lived-in while you're on vacation by having mail held at the post office and leaving lights on at night.

"One of the most important things is simply to LOCK UP YOUR PARKED CAR," Schuessler noted. One of the most common crimes in the city is to steal GPS units, radios, coins and even purses and wallets from parked cars. And in a great majority of those vehicle burglaries, the thief didn't have to break any window. The car was simply left unlocked.

During the break-in: The ideal time to catch a burglar is while he is in the act. So Swoboda has urged both patrolling police officers and ordinary residents to be more suspicious and to check out any activity that does not seem right.

"Be cognizant of your community," Smith said. "If something doesn't look right, pick up the phone and call 911 to have us check it out."

Smith and Schuessler said that's especially important with the large number of vacant, often-foreclosed homes in the city. The precise number was never analyzed, but Swoboda said last year that one reason the number of burglaries went up is that some thieves have begun targeting vacant houses, sometimes brazenly driving up to them during the daytime in a pickup truck or work van and carrying away copper piping, appliances and anything else of value.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, a woman who lives in the 600 block of Wellington Avenue saw a man loading items from inside a nearby vacant house into his pickup truck. The woman called 911, police said, and officers caught Franco Loyo, 48, and Felix Isunza, 52, loading animal cages, a metal grate, pipes, shelves and cans into the truck from the home's basement. Investigators say Isunza admitted also having stolen a refrigerator from the house the day before and sold it to the Ben's Recycling business on Raymond Street.

"We didn't steal anything; the house is empty and it's just scrap metal," Loyo reportedly told police. But an official for the home's owner, Fox River Water Reclamation District, told officers the men had no permission to go inside or take anything. Both were charged with burglary.

Similarly, a police officer caught burglars red-handed last December after he noticed workmen carrying pipes out of a vacant restaurant in the Town & Country Shopping Center at 11 a.m. And in February, a patrolman noticed men loading a refrigerator into a truck parked outside a home on Lin-Lor Lane that had a "for sale" sign in front. He found out they, too, were really burglars, police said.

After the break-in: Internally, Swoboda has reorganized the police department to make sure that investigators in one section exchange information with investigators in other sections. That is especially true of the officers investigating drugs and the ones investigating burglaries, since many burglaries are committed by drug users.

Smith said this improved communication has resulted in two major arrests. He said that in one case that will be announced in the next few days, a man now in Elgin custody is expected to be charged with as many as 200 vehicle burglaries — a major percentage of all vehicle burglaries in the city during a year. Smith declined to say yet just how the man was implicated but said the suspect is a drug user and the facts came together by connecting the dots between different sections of the police force.

In another case, Schuessler said, a series of vehicle burglaries took place on the east side during the summer and fall. Investigators traced these to a teenage girl, and she was arrested as a juvenile on numerous charges.

Other than burglars who get caught red-handed, "burglary arrests rarely come from just one thing," Smith said. "Someone will provide us with a tip about something," perhaps after being arrested on a drug charge, he said. The police drug unit will tell what it has heard to a burglary detective such as Schuessler. That detective will tie the suspect to a crime using some physical evidence such as a fingerprint on a broken window, a shoe print on a kicked-in door, or a sales receipt for resold stolen merchandise. Perhaps the investigators will work somewhere along the way with a school liaison officer.

Tracing the loot: But the newest weapons in the burglary detectives' quiver are stricter rules requiring scrap recyclers, pawn shops, cash-for-gold stores and even thrift shops and flea markets to keep records of who sells them used goods.

Some of these rules have been part of state or federal law for years, such as the requirement that pawn shops document who brings in any kind of merchandise and that they hold merchandise for a period before selling it or melting it down. But in Elgin, the rules for all such resale businesses were made stricter by new city ordinances passed this year, on the recommendation of the police department. And on Jan. 1, a new state law will toughen requirements for selling scrap metal to recycling facilities.

Among other things, the new city ordinance requires businesses to photograph items sold or pawned, and to send the serial numbers for computers, TVs, video games, etc., to a police database called LEADS Online. When a burglary or theft occurs and the homeowner knows the serial number of an item stolen, detectives also enter that into LEADS Online. If a match shows up between an item stolen and an item that has been pawned or sold, the local police department is alerted and now should be able to find out from the pawn shop or the resale store who sold that item.

Scrap dealers such as Elgin Recycling — which has 120 employees at metal-buying facilities in Elgin, Gilberts and four other towns — already were required by state law to get identification from customers who sell them more than $100 worth of metal. But the Jan. 1 laws will require them to get IDs and record the names even for people selling less than $100 worth. The dealers also will be required to verify that the seller is at least 18 years old, pay the seller with a check instead of cash, ask the seller where they got the metal, and put information about the sale into LEADS Online, similar to what pawn shops must do now with jewelry and electronics.

The recyclers' bookkeeping already has resulted in some crimes being solved. A few weeks ago, someone broke into a vacant apartment along Clifford Court. The burglar stole numerous metal items, literally including the kitchen sink.

Investigators checked with the nearby Elgin Recycling store on Schiller Street and learned that it had records of a man pushing a shopping cart who had sold that same assortment of materials the day before. Detectives are still working on that case and hope to make an arrest soon.

"We are already doing most of that stuff in the new law," said Elgin Recycling owner Bob Conroy. "If someone brings in more than $100 worth of stuff, we have a scanner and scan the driver's license and keep it on file. We take pictures of each load while it's still on the scale, and we have been entering those photos into LEADS Online for six months now.

"If someone brings in a load and we're suspicious about its origin, we'll write down the license number and call the police. And if some material gets stolen and the police let us know, we will keep an eye out for it."

In one case a few years ago, Conroy noted, someone stole copper rain gutters off a church and brought them in to Elgin Recycling. "We worked with the police and helped them catch the people."

Conroy believes very little of the material that comes into scrap dealers is stolen. "If someone steals a washing machine, they would be able to get more by selling it as a washing machine than the 8 or 10 cents a pound they could make here by selling it as scrap metal."

Even copper pipes bring in only 25 cents to $2 a pound, depending on how pure the copper is, Conroy said.

Crooked dealers

Burglars breaking into a vacant new or foreclosed house often do thousands of dollars worth of damage to walls and plumbing just to get a few dollars worth of copper or brass.

In one of the most frustrating theft cases in Elgin this year, in February somebody stole the cast-aluminum historical plaque marking the site of the former Simpson Electric/Illinois Watch Case Co. building along Dundee Avenue. Investigators believe the plaque was taken for its value as scrap metal. As scrap, the metal would bring a thief perhaps $20, officials estimated, while creating a new plaque with the same message would cost the Elgin Heritage Commission a whopping $2,000.

No area scrap dealer has yet reported being offered the historical marker, Smith and Schuessler said. Its unique, easy-to-identify nature suggests there may be scrap dealers out there willing to look the other way when somebody brings in some metal of questionable origin.

So do the thefts of iron manhole covers and storm sewer grates that have been reported recently in western suburbs such as LaGrange Park, Oak Park and Elmhurst. People stealing such items right out of the street can get as much $200 per sewer grate. But the yawning holes left behind in the pavement can flatten a car tire or kill a bike rider.

Conroy said that if anyone who's not employed by a city government or a reputable contractor would bring in a manhole cover or a sewer grate to his business, he immediately would suspect it was stolen and call the cops. But all recyclers might not be so scrupulous.

And Conroy said it sometimes is hard to tell whether material was obtained legitimately.

"If somebody brings in a load of new aluminum siding, that sounds suspicious. But sometimes it is a legitimate siding contractor who is just cleaning out an inventory of colors that have been discontinued," Conroy said.

Unfortunately, just as armies and navies answer an enemy's new technology with new inventions of their own, crooks try to keep ahead of the cops in an arms race like this.

Schuessler notes that if pawn shops and resale stores become too "hot" with their ID requirements and record-keeping, the Internet era offers the sophisticated burglar more easily anonymous ways to convert a stolen item into cash.

Ways with names such as Craigslist and eBay.

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