2013-06-12 / Front Page

Homes & businesses hit in wave of burglaries

by Kate Shunney

A steady stream of break-ins and burglaries across Morgan County over recent months has turned into a flood during recent weeks.

Between Monday, June 3 and Saturday, June 8, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department logged eight new break-in cases, bringing their burglary investigations to a total of 20 since May 1.

Local troopers of the West Virginia State Police have had 10 burglary and theft cases in that same time.

The Town of Bath Police Department has worked three burglaries in the last month – one business and two homes.

All told, Morgan County residents and business owners have been the victim of nearly three dozen burglaries in six weeks.

Besides cash, thieves have favored taking guns, electronics, power tools and jewelry – anything with instant resale value.

Where and when they hit

Police say there are some hot spots for the thefts.

Cabins in Great Cacapon and western parts of the county, often isolated and without many neighbors, have been and continue to be a target.

Recent break-ins have also been reported along Johnson’s Mill Road and Highland Ridge, Winchester Grade Road and Cold Run Valley.

“Most burglaries in the same general area with the same m.o. – we assume they are by the same person,” said Stapleton.

Thieves have largely targeted homes during the daytime hours, often sending someone ahead to scout out empty houses.

Police have gotten valuable tips from people reporting that a stranger had knocked on their door asking for directions far away or claiming to search for a lost pet. In one case, a homeowner provided a partial license plate number that helped police identify a suspect.

“Community interaction has been important. It doesn’t take more than a minute or two to get a tag number,” said Sheriff Vince Shambaugh.

Fortunately, there have been no injuries or confrontations between home owners and thieves in the middle of robbing homes, though there have been reports of people coming back home and interrupting a burglary in process.

“People go out of their way to rob houses that are empty,” said Sheriff’s Investigator Tim Stapleton.

Thieves rarely hit homes that have visible alarm systems, he said.

“Burglars want to take their time,” said Stapleton.

But that’s not the case with businesses.

“With businesses, they know they have to get in and get out quick,” he said.

Most business break-ins have taken place at night. Several have happened right along U.S. 522, where the storefront is quite visible.

Early on Monday morning, June 3, the 19th Hole Café south of Berkeley Springs was broken into. Thieves cut their way into the back of the club, dragged a safe into a neighboring field and smashed open the safe to get several thousands of dollars worth of cash inside.

In recent months, Bob’s Tire on U.S. 522 was also hit. Thieves hauled off thousands of dollars worth of new tires from the business.

Protecting a home

Lots of outdoor lighting can help protect a home from burglaries at night, said Chief Deputy Wade Shambaugh. Gates can prevent vehicles from going back on isolated gravel roads. And watchful neighbors can also keep an eye on strangers or unusual vehicles in the area.

Wade Shambaugh said small digital game cameras, or motion-activated video recorders used by hunters, can be a good tool for homeowners trying to protect their house.

If the camera is installed with a clear view of a main door or driveway, burglars will be caught in a photo or video. Police can use the pictures to round up both the thief and what they stole.

“Game cameras have helped catch a few people,” he said.

Recovering property

“We do recover a large amount of stuff that’s stolen,” Shambaugh said.

Modern databases make it easier for police to track items sold through pawnshops, or items recovered from thieves elsewhere.

Homeowners can increase their chance of getting items back by keeping a record of serial numbers on guns, electronics and power tools or by etching some identifying mark on valuables.

Sheriff Shambaugh said his department recovered a fourwheeler years after it was stolen and recently got a call from another police agency about a gun that was stolen locally in 1998.

Sometimes a burglar, once caught, will lead police to a cache of items taken from numerous homes. Local police have recovered stolen goods from break-ins that were never even reported.

The drug connection

Some thieves tell police and court officials after they’re caught that breaking into homes and stealing people’s stuff is a rush that they can’t get away from. Even after doing jail time, some burglars go back to stealing because of the thrill of it, said Stapleton.

Then there are addicts.

“More than half of the break-ins are drug related. When you’re a heroin addict, the habit costs you $50-100 a day,” said Sheriff Shambaugh.

“You’ve got to steal a lot of stuff to pay for that habit,” said Wade Shambaugh.

Thieves will sell electronics or other items for a fraction of their value to get cash for drugs. Guns are especially valuable – they can be traded directly to drug dealers in Baltimore for their product, said police. At least once, a four-wheeler stolen in Morgan County was taken to the city and given to a dealer for payment.

The members of the Sheriff’s Department investigative team have kept their sights on what some people have called “small-time dealers.”

Criticized for not taking down a larger heroin dealer, police said that’s not how the drug market works in Morgan County.

“The people are users and dealers,” said Wade Shambaugh.

Stapleton said individual heroin addicts will drive to Baltimore several times each week to buy the drug for their own use, or for one or two friends.

Once an addict has a connection in the city, they share that information with fellow addicts. Instead of one or two people bringing the drug back for distribution, users go get their own in Baltimore.

Deputies routinely have to travel toward the city to pick up local residents arrested in Howard, Frederick or Washington County, Md. on their way back home from a drug purchase.

Stapleton said there have been some successes – addicts that have been able to recover from their drug habit and want to help get others clean.

“Just because we can’t stop it doesn’t mean we can stop fighting it,” Shambaugh said of the drug traffic and its connection to local robberies.

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