On a typical day, at least a few Spokane Valley residents clean broken glass from the inside of their cars or trucks and begin to count their losses: missing stereos, stolen purses, pilfered medication. Vehicle break-ins and the theft and forgeries linked to them are among the most common crimes that face law enforcement. During a recent weeklong stretch, 31 Spokane Valley residents reported that their cars had been broken into.
There have already been 902 vehicle break-ins reported through August. That’s a 30 percent increase over the same time period last year, according to a crime analysis done by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for the Spokane Valley Police Department.
Individual break-ins usually aren’t investigated, said Cpl. Dave Reagan, spokesman for the Spokane Valley Police Department. Vehicle prowling — as law enforcement refers to the crime of breaking into a car or truck — often happens at night, without witnesses and leaves few, if any, leads for an officer to follow, Reagan said.
Yet the crime ranks as a major annoyance for victims, who have to get car windows fixed and have to worry about stolen credit cards being used and their identities being stolen.
Police recommend the obvious: Lock your car doors and don’t leave anything enticing within view inside. People need to take faceplates off their stereos, remove purses out of trunks and take checkbooks out of glove compartments, Reagan said.
“You may no be able to prevent yourself from becoming a vehicle prowling victim, but you can certainly limit your losses by not leaving things of value in your car,” Reagan said.
Dustin Lee Lang viewed stealing as his way to make a living. He would cruise neighborhoods and look for vehicles likely to have expensive stereos or other valuables inside, according to court documents and his own admission.
If someone had a $900 stereo in the car and didn’t bother to remove the faceplate, Lang said he would figure the person didn’t really care about the stereo and could afford to lose it.
“If their garage is as big as my house then, damn, they must have insurance. They’ve got all this stuff and I’ve got nothing,” Lang said in a recent telephone interview.
The 23-year-old would cruise through Spokane Valley neighborhoods at night — often with a friend — and break into cars looking for stereos and credit cards, according to court documents that cite detectives and friends. Lang and Daniel A. Wessels, 18, were arrested on Feb. 23 when police officers stopped the 1975 Chevrolet pickup Lang was driving. Police had gotten reports that a truck similar to the description of the one Lang was driving had been involved in several break-ins near Highway 27 and East 24th Avenue.
Lang’s driver’s license was suspended. Police arrested him and searched the truck. Inside, they allegedly found cameras, a Russian Bible, a CD player, plastic gas cans, boxes of hand tools and a video game called “Grand Theft Auto.” Lang allegedly admitted to police that much of the things inside the truck had been taken during vehicle break-ins and burglaries in Spokane Valley.
At one point during the investigation, Detectives drove Wessels around the Valley so he could show them different garages and vehicles the two had targeted.
Lang was not formally charged with the break-ins until recently. He was supposed to be arraigned last week on 24 felony charges, most of which stemmed from breaking into vehicles in Spokane Valley between November 2003 and February 2004. Lang didn’t show up for his court date because he said he’s trying to find money to pay for an attorney.
Lang admits to having stolen in the past but denies that he committed all the vehicle break-ins detectives accuse him of. He blames Wessels and other friends for many of the thefts, and said he was in jail during some of the vehicle prowlings he’s been blamed for. Wessels could not be reached for comment.
Lang said he knows it was wrong to steal, but that he couldn’t get a job and needed a way to feed his methamphetamine addiction.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody and I wish they’d understand that,” Lang said of the victims. “I don’t do it because I like to steal, but I’ve got to make ends meet.”
Fifteen people are listed in court documents as victims of the vehicle and garage break-ins earlier this year that Lang has been charged with.
One victim is Nikki Hemberry and her family.
A block of pavement shattered the window of the Hemberry family’s minivan on the snowy morning of Jan. 8.
When Hemberry went to take out the garbage that morning, she discovered her purse — with a debit card, cash and her four daughters’ Social Security cards — had been stolen from the minivan.
By the time Hemberry and her husband Scott called the bank at 8 a.m., the debit card had already been used several times.
Hemberry said she feels lucky. That same morning, police recovered Hemberry’s purse from a stranger’s lawn, where thieves had obviously tossed it after taking what they wanted. The Social Security cards and other things that thieves could’ve taken and used to steal her identity, were still inside.
The bank covered the unauthorized debit card charges and insurance helped fix the van window.
“It was more that we felt we were in a safe neighborhood,” said Hemberry, who lives in a neighborhood not far from Terrace View Park, an area Lang and his associates reportedly targeted.
It took quite awhile before Hemberry’s daughters felt comfortable going to sleep at night. More than the broken window or stolen purse, Hemberry said her children lost the feeling of security they had in their home. Now, before going to bed, they ask whether the windows and doors are locked.
Of the 31 people who had vehicles broken into recently, one was Sally Jackson. Most folks in Spokane Valley know Jackson as one of the area’s staunchest Democrats, biggest incorporation opponents and favorite swimming instructors.
Jackson, by her estimation, had 180 cassette tapes stolen from her white Dodge van around Sept. 27. Her daughter discovered a small window on the van’s passenger side had been broken. Thieves tried to remove the stereo, but just managed to tilt it before abandoning the effort.
When Jackson went outside, glass littered the inside of the van. It took two hours to clean it up, she said. Jackson reported the theft to police, but said she knows it won’t be investigated because its one small vehicle break-in among many.
Yet to Jackson, the theft wasn’t small. She lost tapes — Hank Williams, The Beatles, Bread, Glenn Miller — which her family liked to play on road trips.
“There’s a whole slug of those (cassette tapes) you can’t get anymore,” Jackson said Friday. “It’s just one more thing you don’t want to deal with.”