As Burglaries Spike, Manchester Police Turn To Mapping, Database For Clues

Sep 5, 2013

Burglaries tend to increase in the warmer weather, but Manchester saw its numbers spike significantly in the recent summer months.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, there were 338 burglaries in the city, a 23 percent increase over the same period last year.

The man who showed up at her front door one day in July seemed like a Godsend to 94-year-old Lorraine Fitzgerald.

“He said that he was a caretaker and he noticed that my backyard was very full of grass and overgrown. And I thought, you know, I was waiting for someone to come to do that, but I didn’t know who to call.”

The man lured Fitzgerald and her 98-year-old sister Rachel Petchell who lives with her out to their backyard.

That’s when they noticed the white van backing into their driveway.

“He said stay here, I’ll be right back, but he never did. So when we came in, she said, ‘Oh my God, they might be robbers! He’s taking off!’

The men got away with two safes, one from each of the sisters’ bedroom. They were never caught.

Among the items Rachel Petchell lost – the diamond wedding ring from her first husband.

“In the safe, there was a lot of stuff that he took that was important to me; all my weddings, and my birth certificates of my first husband and my second and all of that. So I’ll never put that back together now.”

Detective Ken Loui says this type of crime has become all too familiar.

“Basically, one person will serve as a distraction; the other person then goes into the home and commits the burglary.”

Loui is a detective in Manchester’s burglary unit.

And to say he’s had a busy summer would be an understatement.

During a two-week period in July, the department was seeing 30 a week.

Burglaries actually had gone down by 25 percent since the creation of the burglary unit in 2010. That was until this sudden surge.

Loui says the department is trying to get a handle on the cause.

“There’s so many different factors that are involved. Has somebody new moved in? Has a new crew of burglars moved in from another jurisdiction? Who knows? Has an experienced crew recently been released from jail? Because the recidivism rate is extremely high for burglaries.”

What detectives do know is that the majority of burglaries are fueled by drug addiction, and that perpetrators are far more likely to target homes rather than commercial businesses.

Unfortunately, Loui says many homeowners aren’t taking even the most basic of security measures.

“A lot of people are leaving their windows open. And all that separates all of their possessions from the outside world is a screen. Easily cut. So that’s another easy access point. Air conditioners getting pushed in. That’s common.”

While Loui doesn’t call the recent spike a trend, the department is fighting back with new tools and technology.

“So I can visually just look at the map say, there was a hotspot here in the center of the city," says Krista Comrie, the department’s crime analyst. “So that’s something I’m going to look at while I’m going through my burglary statistics for the week.”

Her job is to look for patterns and trends on a larger scale, and then bring that data to investigators so they can deploy resources to the right places.

Not surprisingly, burglaries have been keeping her busy.

“And I type it up into a giant spreadsheet so they have all the information of every single burglary that week. So we had…last week, we had 26.”

Her weekly reports detail everything from what was taken to how the suspect got into the building.

So do all these spreadsheets lead to arrests?

“Sometimes. Detectives are pretty good about communicating if something I sent helped out.”

But data and mapping can only go so far.

A year ago, the department started using Leads Online, a national database that tracks what has been sold to local pawn shops and second-hand stores.

A city ordinance requires pawn shop owners to track what they’re taking in. That means taking pictures of the item, the person selling it and the seller’s license.

It also requires the business owners to hold onto the items for 30 days before putting it out for sale.

Loui says the system is working.

“I know, just from working with all the other detectives in the unit, you know, routinely, they’ll come back from a pawn shop carrying stolen items that all need to get logged into evidence. So it’s a huge, huge tool.”

But some believe the system puts too much burden on local business owners.

“We want to comply and we do, I just think the system needs to be tweaked a little bit,” says Jeff Shaughnessy, who co-owns ReCell Mobile, a Manchester store that buys, repairs and resells cell phones.

He says he wants to help, but the 30-day holding period has been an issue.

“That’s tricky for a business like us because technology changes so fast, that every week or two, a new product or device is out on the market, which lowers the value of the resale of it.”

Businesses also must pay a one dollar fee every time they enter an item into the system.

Shaughnessy says that means he’s on the hook for 30 to 60 dollars a month just to comply with the law.

Detective Loui says he hasn’t heard those complaints, but says it’s incumbent upon the police department to work with the community to keep burglaries down.

He just hopes the recent surge is an anomaly.

“And I think that their numbers show that they clearly are. They kind of defy the trends. I mean, they’re spiking pretty significantly. I like to consider them an outlier. Hopefully, they’re not an indication of things to come.”

As for Lorraine Fitzgerald and Rachel Petchell, they’re still getting over the fear that comes with having your home violated by an intruder.

“We try to take our minds off of it. It’s gone, it’s gone, you’ll never get it back,” says Petchell.

“It’s just at night when you try to sleep, you think, why were we so gullible? Why are we so stupid?” adds Fitzgerald.

Like many burglary victims, the sisters didn’t just lose precious items; they were also robbed of their sense of security.