Crime spree prompts volunteer patrols
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
January 08, 2014 08:34 am

Yet another vehicle was stolen in unincorporated Curry County over the weekend, but Curry County Sheriff Lt. John Ward thinks it could have been worse.

The vehicle, a 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer was stolen early Saturday morning from a house on the Winchuck River. The owner said he heard a car start, but thought it was his neighbor; when he went out the next day, he realized it’d been his own vehicle.

“We’ve been getting hit pretty hard,” Ward said of the recent spate of vehicle thefts and house break-ins. “We don’t have the resources in the night.”

So he tried an experiment on his day off. 

Ward patrolled the Harbor area from 8 p.m. Saturday until 5 a.m. Sunday.

“And lo and behold, nothing happened,” he said. “There were no gas thefts, no break-ins, no stolen vehicles. I traveled all over Lower Harbor Road, the Winchuck, all the streets — I made it known that I was out there. And I think that kind of deterred crime. We’d been seen.”

Ward had a deputy do the same thing until 3 a.m. the following day.

“And nothing much happened,” he said.

But that won’t continue.

“We didn’t get compensated,” Ward said. “It was just something I wanted to see, since we’ve been hit nightly. We don’t have the resources to keep doing that. I put in too many hours in my week here as it is.”

Crime has surged in recent weeks as thieves take advantage of the sheriff’s inability to cover the unincorporated areas of the county 24/7. Several cars have been stolen — three have been recovered — and the presumed perpetrator of that ring has yet to be caught.

Law enforcement officials here and in Del Norte County are working together to solve the car thefts, Ward said, as some of those stolen were found in Smith River.

Other crime has included home and car break-ins and, most recently, the theft of mail from boxes along roadways.

“Someone has been stealing our mail in my neighborhood in Harbor,” Jessica Altvatter wrote on a local blog. “My neighbor brought us mail that had been thrown by the Winchuck. My other neighbor found her envelope for a gift certificate she ordered with the gift certificate missing. I took a jog down Oceanview Drive and there were opened envelopes and people’s mail strewn about in the ditches.”

Ward said officers found mail dumped along Carpenterville Road, and sent letters to those people warning them of the thefts.

Angry citizens

Citizens aren’t obviously frustrated, if comments made on local social media are any indication. More than 100 posts were tallied as of noon Monday on two comments on Facebook’s Brookville site related to crime in unincorporated areas of the county.

“Nothing in Harbor or in the rest of the county is safe, and it’s going to get worse,” Dom Petrucelli wrote. “When people do not want to pay for police protection, please don’t blame the police. One deputy cannot cover the whole county.”

“We used to feel safe around here,” wrote Erma Bridges. “Not now!”

And suggestions run the gamut, from security lights to vigilante patrols — even the “A” word: annexation of Harbor into Brookings.

“Cars are getting stolen left and right, and it’s because people know there’s little to no law enforcement,” wrote Mandy Tirado of Brookings. “And the reason that is, is because the citizens of Curry County refuse to pay higher taxes to fund more law enforcement. At this point, the folks in Harbor have two choices: pay taxes or move into Brookings city limits. It’s that simple.”

Citizens named the victims: their neighbors on the Winchuck River, their relatives on Oceanview — twice, and one house on Vollum three times.

Others have reported suspicious people and cars in their neighborhood, presumably casing the area for easy thefts — crimes of opportunity. A prowler was reported in Tonopah Village, up Hall Way in Harbor.

Sheriff John Bishop said his department is already using reserves and trained volunteers but they are just that: volunteers.

“I have more than 30 volunteers to run the substation and there are weeks when we don’t have coverage,” Bishop said. “Volunteers are just that. When they have time, they help, but when family or medical issues come up, they are gone. I sure don’t blame them — they are volunteering. So while a volunteer force sounds good, or looks good on paper, in practical terms, it is very unreliable for 24/7 operations.

“Trained volunteers are outstanding but we can’t get enough,” he continued. “We just can’t keep training people when we don’t have enough to operate with to begin with.”

Forming vigilante groups isn’t a viable option, either, he said.

“The personal liability to citizens is extreme,” Bishop said. “It is one thing to patrol in the daytime when the weather is nice — that is when we seem to get volunteers. But in the dead of night when it is cold and wet we don’t seem to get the help.”

It all comes down to money

“We won’t know (what’s going to happen) until the funding issue’s been taken care of,” Ward said, adding that he doesn’t see that happening in the immediate future. “You can’t just put deputies out working alone every night, dealing with people who may be armed — it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Until then, citizens are urged to get to know their neighbors, be alert to strangers and suspicious vehicles, pay attention to details such as the descriptions of people and license plates, take notice when dogs begin barking, lock cars and keep valuables — and things like garage door openers — indoors.

The county commissioners will meet later this month with their peers, sheriffs and district attorneys from the 17 other O&C counties to discuss the financing issue facing all of them. Bishop said after this summit meeting, he might hold a meeting asking for volunteers and train them to work as patrollers.

“I am not sure what a written plan will do,” Bishop said. “I don’t know what else to say. Either people are not listening or I am not getting the point across. There is a cost to doing business, and in this day and age volunteers — while a great asset — are not the answer. What we need is a funding solution.”

Ward noted that even his presence and that of his deputy last weekend proved that more law enforcement is needed.

“When you don’t have any complaints the next morning, you have to attribute it to something,” he said. “If we had enough coverage to do this 24/7, we’d put a huge damper on this crime wave.”

“I’m frustrated,” Ward added. “I’m tired of people being taken advantage of and everything getting stolen out from underneath them. I wanted to see if I could make a difference last weekend, and at least, on one night, I did.”