CRIME IN MONTECITO UP 12% FROM LAST YEAR

Burglary Victims Lambaste Deputies’ Level of Service

On the afternoon of May 16, between the hours of 1:30 and 4 o’clock, Gregg and Laura Welsh fell victim to a major burglary. Multiple perpetrators, it can be assumed, broke into their Hill Road home and stole computers and sundry electronic equipment, pillow cases and a safe weighing close to 600 pounds. To authorities, the job appeared it was performed impulsively and hastily. Indoor furnishing were turned over and deputies discovered scuff marks on the Welshes’ floor that indicated the safe had been dragged outside. The contents included $250,000 of precious jewelry – a wedding ring, family heirlooms and a Rolex watch – $6,000 in cash and sports memorabilia, including a baseball signed more than 80 years ago by Babe Ruth. The Welshes estimate they lost about $600,000 worth of property, the largest heist to hit Montecito this year.

On the Rise

Since crime in Montecito dropped by 27% in an 11-month period from 2003 to 2004, reports have increased steadily for the past three years, 11.6% in the last year alone. These rising statistics buck a national trend that, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, has seen both violent and property crimes decrease almost uninterruptedly since 1973. Residential burglary statistics have been relatively unchanged, going from 71 last year to 72 in a period between July of 2005 to May of 2006. What has been affected considerably, though, is the meteoric rise in the financial value of property stolen. Since July of last year about $1.2 million worth of residential, commercial and other property has been taken, four times the amount missing for the same period last year.

Meanwhile, the number of thefts – shoplifting, stealing from vehicles, etc – increased by 23% this year. Stolen property values went up 17 times, from $150,000 to $2.6 million.

To victims like Gregg Welsh, the rise in crime demonstrates how “blissfully ignorant” Montecito residents are about property crime. In such an affluent area, he says people, including himself, should be more aware of their vulnerability to thefts and burglaries.

“It gives you a false sense of security,” says Gregg, who has practiced oral surgery for the past 25 years. “If I would have known that we live in an area rife with crime, I would have taken different precautions. Here, you get half a million dollars stolen and no one knows about it. If everyone knew about this problem, we could do something about it, like create a neighborhood watch program.”

The Welshes are renting their Hill Road home that got burglarized while their other Montecito house is undergoing renovations. Because their renter’s insurance doesn’t cover jewelry theft and only protects up to $1,000 of cash, the Welshes have relied heavily on the County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation to recover their goods. Meantime, Laura has scoured local pawn shops and Internet sites and says she believes she’s found the missing Rolex on sale at craigslist.com.

Sheriff’s Department data on stolen property recovery are historically not on the victim’s side. On average, the Department reports a 23% recovery rate, though last year it was 53% (recovery percentages can be as low as less than 1%).

Gregg complains that during the ongoing investigation, the County Sheriff’s Department has been neglectful and non-communicative. He says it took the agency’s assigned detective, Raul Vasquez, about three weeks to first contact him about the case. “I started thinking, ‘wow, we’re having a big problem here,’” Gregg says. When he could reach the detective, Gregg says Vasquez would tell him he was preoccupied with inner city gang violence and couldn’t give his case any attention. Exasperated, Gregg hired a private detective, Craig Case, to assist in the investigation and he lodged a complaint about Vasquez directly to Sheriff Jim Anderson.

“These things in our neighborhood have to be addressed,” Gregg says. “We have to know that our Sheriff’s Department is not there for us as far as burglaries go. Sheriffs don’t care.”

Within a couple weeks, the Welshes had a new detective attached to their case, Chris Korbett, whom Gregg says has been more cooperative, but has yet to find any leads.

Gregg suggests the lack of assistance he’s received from deputies typifies the agency’s lax enforcement in Montecito.

“I mean, who’s really paying their bills? Who’s paying the taxes? It’s the people here in Montecito,” Gregg said. “It’s not fair that for the taxes that I pay, that I should hire a private individual to do the sheriff’s job.”

Sheriff’s deputies have admitted, in private conversations and publicly, that they devote more scrutiny in other areas of the county because Montecito is barely affected by violent crimes such as murder, rape and assault. Some residents have come to expect treatment of this ilk.

“I don’t think they care about property burglary,” said Jane Rocco, whose Montecito home was burglarized in February.

Rocco, who lost about $100,000 in jewelry, sterling silver flatware and a mink coat, said her assigned detective was “uncooperative” and “didn’t return my calls.” She added that she hasn’t received any updates in nearly three months.

Rocco says she’s tried to complain by making calls to Sheriff Anderson, but friends and fellow burglary victims have warned her not to, for fear she’d up on her detective’s “bad side.”

“They said don’t piss off the Sheriff’s Department or they won’t return your calls,” Rocco said. “At this point, there’s nothing I could do.”

Priority People

On the national radar of violent crimes, Montecito barely makes a blip. Between July 2005 and May of this year, Montecito’s violent crime rate came in at less than 3 crimes per 1,000 people, 7 times less than the national average and more than 2 times less than the rest of Santa Barbara county, according to Department of Justice statistics.

With such a paucity in violent crimes and with a department so limited in its finances, county sheriffs inevitably have to make difficult judgment calls and focus on areas that require the most attention.

“I don’t think the affluence of a neighborhood factors into how we respond to crimes,” said Sergeant Erik Raney, the Department’s spokesman. “What does take priority is crimes against persons, rather than crimes against property. If we have a high-money theft on our hands we don’t want to discriminate against any victim, but we don’t have the amount of resources to work any case equally.”

Responding to criticisms about the department’s level of service, Raney said, “It’s always a shame when we’re not able to serve our citizens to the level that they expect.”

Raney attributes the rise in non-violent crimes and the department’s struggles combating them to a host of factors. For one, he said wealthy neighborhoods create a special draw for criminal opportunists. In addition, the burglary sites are remote and easy to access. And, there’s plenty of houses to pick from.

“We’re talking about a relatively large residential to commercial ratio,” Raney said. “That’s one of the reasons you see this type of phenomenon in Montecito.”

Another reason is that these types of crimes are difficult and expensive to prevent. The best way to target this activity is with high security equipment, which can be costly. The demand for such equipment is best illustrated when considering auto thefts, which in Montecito typically occur at night or often during the day at trailheads.

In 2004, department officials took pride in having controlled the number of auto burglaries occurring on locked vehicles. Lieutenant Phil Willis, who worked the Montecito beat at the time, had announced the agency in 2004 limited to one the number of smash and grabs at the Cold Spring Trailhead.

Authorities had instituted a voluntary deputy bike patrol program led by Sergeant Brad McVay that was championed as the defining triumph over trailhead thefts. But auto burglaries are back on the rise, especially at the Cold Spring Trailhead, with a bad rash occurring in the past three months. In the last year, thefts from vehicles have jumped from 58 to 76, a 31% increase.

Montecito’s community resource deputy Isaiah Tchobanoff, who regularly patrols trailheads, said the department has been focusing intensely on the areas, but claimed there’s often little authorities can do. Sheriffs did recently apprehend two suspects wanted in connection to nine smash and grabs occurring in the area.

Some residents have recently been clamoring for the installation of surveillance equipment at local trailheads. Raney said it’s a good idea that the department hadn’t explored yet.

Mixed Signals

Law enforcement officials admit that the type of service they’re able to offer and what citizens come to expect can often come into conflict. Raney said it’s partly due to people’s misunderstanding about how deputies should do their jobs.

“In general, the public’s perception about law enforcement has been altered by TV shows like CSI or Law & Order,” Raney said. “With that said, the public should have a high expectation from its Sheriff’s Department.”

Unlike TV cop shows, crimes don’t get solved in an hour. Closing a case can take weeks or months and arrests are seldom made. “It’s difficult because criminals don’t leave us much in the way of leads,” Raney said. “It’s an uphill battle.”