By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY Marilyn Bastone remembers the call from her husband, Dennis, the day before New Year’s Eve.
Their home had been broken into, he told her, their possessions jewelry, a laptop and some cash stolen.
The Bastones felt violated.
“What hurts the most was they took my mother’s engagement ring and 40 years’ worth of gifts from my husband and family,” Marilyn recalled, her voice breaking with emotion.
Their Monticello house had been locked up tight, but the burglar or burglars jimmied open the bathroom window, breaking it in the process.
They headed straight for the master bedroom, Marilyn said, checking closets and the medicine cabinet along the way.
“They were just looking for whatever they could find,” she explained.
Marilyn figured they were watching her and Dennis’ comings-and-goings, possibly even noting that Dennis had taken the family dog with him when he left the house that day.
The pain remains fresh. Their stolen possessions have not been found, and though police have several leads, Marilyn heartbrokenly accepts the very real possibility that they’ll never see any of it again.
The couple has beefed up their home security and are even looking into adding cameras, but Marilyn noted with bitter irony that if the burglars do return, “they’re not going to find much anymore.”
Unfortunately, Marilyn’s story isn’t uncommon these days in Sullivan County.
Just ask her boss, Sullivan County Sheriff Michael Schiff, for whom she works as confidential secretary. Schiff and Undersheriff Eric Chaboty made a presentation to the County Legislature last month about the problem.
“We’re really concerned,” said Chaboty, telling legislators that burglaries investigated by the Sheriff’s Office have risen from 179 in 2009 to 201 in 2010 to 224 in 2011.
(Burglaries are legally distinct from robberies, which occur when criminals steal directly from an individual rather than their house.)
Since this past September, deputies have responded to 87 burglaries and the numbers are similar for other local police departments.
“We’ve certainly seen an uptick in burglaries,” affirmed Captain Keith Corlett, commander of the State Police barracks in Liberty, Wurtsboro, Roscoe and Narrowsburg.
From October 2011 to January 2012 alone, the State Police investigated 52 burglaries. For the same period the year before, the number was 38.
“That’s a 37 percent increase,” Corlett acknowledged.
The Village of Liberty Police Department saw a spike, too.
“In the last quarter of 2010, we only had six burglaries,” related Detective Sergeant Scott Kinne. “In the last quarter of 2011, we had 16.
“In January of 2011 we had two,” he continued. “In January of 2012, we had 10.”
“Yeah, they’re keeping us busy,” affirmed Town of Fallsburg Police Department Chief Simmie Williams.
Though he didn’t have numbers offhand, Williams said thieves have become more brazen, often doing their dirty work in the daylight hours.
And it’s actually worse in winter, when jobs are scarcer, times are tougher and more properties are uninhabited.
“I just know we always have this problem this time of year,” Williams said.
The Village of Monticello, however, may be the surprising exception.
“In the summer and fall, we had an increase,” explained Lt. Mark Johnstone of the Monticello PD. “That seems to have calmed down.”
Still, he said, people need to protect their property especially if they plan to be away an extended time.
“If you can afford an alarm, get one,” Johnstone urged.
“A little bit of electricity and an alarm can go a long way,” agreed Williams.
And let your local department know the dates you’ll be gone some, like Monticello, will do a regular premises check.
Police say a good idea is for residents to take photos of jewelry and write down the serial number of electronics.
Burglars, Johnstone said, prefer to strike when homes and other businesses are unoccupied.
“Most burglars are non-violent people,” advised Corlett of the State Police. “Lock your doors and trim your bushes away from your windows.”
And keep an eye on your neighbors’ homes and properties. Don’t be afraid to call the police to come and check.
“If you see something, say something,” urged Chaboty. “People know who belongs in a neighborhood.”
Indeed, the police’s chances of successfully recovering victims’ possessions are far higher if they catch the culprits during or immediately after the crime.
Burglars, however, are adept at quickly grabbing what they want, then disappearing. Arrests, Corlett indicated, often come weeks, months, even years down the road.
“It’s normally much more after the fact, after multiple burglaries have been committed and a pattern has emerged,” he explained.
And by that time, sadly, your possessions are likely to have been spent, pawned, traded, disposed or melted down.
“Burglaries are committed for cash,” said Corlett cash for drugs and other illicit activities, or sometimes just for food and similar necessities.
“A lot of it has to do with the economy,” stated Johnstone, who’s found copper piping, with its high asking price, is a popular item for thieves in Monticello.
“We try to locate property that was stolen as quick as we can,” affirmed Kinne but that’s complicated by two major issues.
One is staffing. While agencies do work together (burglaries these days are often committed by people who don’t live in that community, necessitating a multi-agency response), the Liberty PD and Sheriff’s Office in particular say they’re hurting from staff shortages.
The other complication involves trying to intercept the stolen property before it either leaves the area or is melted down.
Reputable pawn shops require photo ID, but that only helps police track down suspects, not recover items that may have quickly been sold or otherwise disposed.
In response, Sullivan County District Attorney Jim Farrell plans to ask legislators next month to implement a law already in effect in neighboring Orange County. It would prohibit secondhand dealers of precious metals and gems from immediately selling, trading or melting down precious metals they buy or trade.
“I’m proposing a 15 [calendar]-day waiting period,” Farrell explained. “Currently, a pawn shop has no obligation to hold onto an item. ... I think there needs to be better enforcement from the pawn shop side of it to help us recover stolen items.”
The law would require pawn shop owners to digitally photograph jewelry and record any inscriptions.
Farrell, too, has seen his office’s burglary caseload rise by about 20 percent between 2010 and 2011.
“We were on pace in 2011 for well over 500 [cases],” he affirmed.
Yet he believes that represents only a quarter or so of the actual burglaries committed in the county most go unsolved and thus unprosecuted.
“I think we need neighbors to look out for neighbors,” he said, “... because many of the burglars are very careful in what they leave behind forensically.”
Farrell does not take these home invasions lightly, promising to vigorously prosecute such cases.
But that starts with residents being vigilant, both as individuals and as a community.
As Liberty’s Sgt. Kinne urges, call the police if you see anything suspicious.
“That’s what we’re here for,” he said.
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If it’s a life-threatening emergency or a situation where you feel unsafe, dial 911.
Otherwise, call the police at one of these numbers:
• Sheriff’s Office (countywide): 794-7100.
• State Police (countywide): 292-6600.
• Monticello PD (Village of Monticello): 794-4422.
• Liberty PD (Village of Liberty): 292-4422.
• Fallsburg PD (Town of Fallsburg): 434-4422.