Garage burglars have been on the prowl in the early morning hours in Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake in recent months, taking advantage of people who are lax in locking their garage doors and cars. In two recent cases burglars were spotted by witnesses between 4 and 5 a.m.
The city of Spokane Valley and the immediately adjacent areas of unincorporated Spokane County had 73 garage burglaries between Nov. 4 and Jan. 31, said Spokane Valley police Sgt. John Nowels. That does not include vehicle prowlings.
The thieves are often striking garages where the door has been left open. “Crimes of opportunity would be the best way to describe it,” Nowels said. The thieves just wander in and see what they can walk away with. “It’s easy.”
One of those witnesses is Pinerock neighborhood resident Don Roberts. Last month he was getting ready to leave town on vacation and opened his garage door shortly after 4 a.m. so he could keep an eye out for a relative who was coming to give him a ride to the airport.
“I was just checking every few minutes,” Roberts said. After only a few minutes inside the house he poked his head out and saw someone sitting in the front seat of his car. He initially thought it was his relative. “A guy jumped out, and I saw it wasn’t (the relative),” Roberts said. “I started chasing him out of the garage.”
The man turned around and pointed at Roberts with both hands held together, which made Roberts think he was holding a gun. “I couldn’t see because it was dark,” Roberts said. “I don’t know if he had one or if he didn’t have one. I wasn’t going to stick around and check it out. I just dove. I just hit the ground and rolled.” The burglar ran away.
Nothing was missing, and Roberts believes that’s because he interrupted the would-be thief. He admits his car was unlocked. “There was nothing in there, really, to take,” he said. “I had been out there three minutes before.”
Nowels said he believes several different people or groups are responsible for the burglaries. In some cases a neighborhood is hit several times in one night, making it likely that one person or group did them all. In other cases there are similarities between crimes that tie them together. “There are certain groups of them that I know were done by one person,” he said.
It’s a different story in Liberty Lake. There have been 24 garage burglaries since October, a number that doesn’t include a large number of vehicle prowls that are likely related. Police there believe that one man is responsible for all or most of the crimes, said police Chief Brian Asmus.
The department arrested Robert L. Hahn in December after catching him in the act. He was charged with felony residential burglary and theft and bailed out of jail in about 12 hours, Asmus said. Since then he appears to be back at it, and a witness saw a man near his garage last month and gave a description that matched Hahn, Asmus said.
Since Hahn’s initial arrest police have amassed enough evidence to link him to several more crimes. Police are looking for him and they don’t want to just chat, Asmus said. “Oh, no,” he said. “We’re going to arrest him.”
Asmus said the Post Falls Police Department is also searching for Hahn in connection with crimes he allegedly committed there.
It’s a struggle to do an investigation and make an arrest and have the suspect get out of jail so quickly and go back to work, Asmus said. “Everybody has the right to bail out,” he said. “It is very frustrating, especially for the patrol officers. They go out and do a great job of keeping the community safe, and then they get out.”
Many of the items stolen in Liberty Lake include wallets, purses, electronic items, money and other valuables. In recent incidents garage door openers have also been stolen from unlocked cars parked in driveways. The burglar can then come back and use it to enter the garage.
Spokane Valley police have made some arrests recently for garage burglaries, one of them a teenager who was prowling the Ponderosa neighborhood. There would be more arrests if people would mark their property to make it identifiable or write down serial numbers, Nowels said. Otherwise even if police recover a stolen item there is no way to determine who it belongs to.
“If we don’t catch the guy red-handed, we have to search for crumbs of evidence here and there,” Nowels said.
Asmus emphasizes the importance of closing and locking garage doors. “Make sure your doors are shut at night,” he said. “Just double-check.”
People who leave their cars unlocked often argue that if a thief wants something, he’ll just break the window to get it. Broken windows are rare, and it’s almost always because a valuable item was left in plain view, Asmus said.
“They’re looking for easy targets,” he said.