Lakewood Police Sgt. Peter Johnson spent nine hours one day last month chauffeuring a man from Olympia to Point Defiance and points in between in search of victims.
A day earlier, the man had told police he stole at least 30 pieces of lawn equipment from residences and sold them to pawn shops in Thurston, Pierce and King counties. Officers suggested he might want to help them locate the victims. The man agreed.
“I can’t speak to his character, but I can appreciate his need to do the right thing in the end,” Johnson said.
Their tour of South Sound neighborhoods and alleys eventually led to several reunions in the back parking lot of the police department last week. Officers lined up the lawnmowers, yard trimmers, pressure washers and a power saw they had recovered, and invited the victims whose homes and garages the suspect had identified to take a look.
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“These are the best days, hands down,” said Johnson, an investigator with Lakewood’s property crimes unit.
In some instances, people didn’t know they had been victims of theft. That was the case for Steilacoom resident Jason Lech, who was out of town when his lawn trimmer was taken.
“I live in a part of town where people don’t lock their doors at night,” Lech said. “It’s nice to get it back, but it’s kind of bothersome it was taken.”
Lakewood police don’t keep statistics on how many cases end with owners reunited with their stolen items, but police Chief Mike Zaro said it’s not typical to return such a large number of stolen goods. The last time police returned a large number of stolen items was in 2014, after officers arrested a man who stole roughly $500,000 worth of jewelry from homes in Lakewood.
“More often than not the property is not recovered,” Zaro said. “That’s why actually being able to return someone’s property is such a big deal to us.”
More often than not the property is not recovered. That’s why actually being able to return someone’s property is such a big deal to us.
Mike Zaro, Lakewood Police Chief
The police department has made property crimes a priority since the department formed in 2004 under then-police Chief Larry Saunders. “And it has remained that way,” Zaro said.
Six people, a sergeant, detective and four investigators, comprise the department’s property crimes unit.
Zaro attributes a decline in property crime to the city’s focus. Lakewood’s highest property crime rate over the past 19 years was in 1997, a year after incorporation, according to South Sound 911 statistics. At the time, the city reported 82.1 incidents of property crimes per 1,000 people, according to Lakewood Police data.
Nearly two decades later the rate dropped to 43.6 incidents per 1,000 people in 2015.
“We’re on a good trend downward,” Zaro said.
Only crimes committed in Lakewood are recorded in the statistics even if Lakewood officers solve cases across jurisdictions such as the recent lawn equipment thefts, Zaro said.
Other Pierce County cities have seen a downward trend in reported property crimes, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The agency analyzes data voluntarily submitted by the majority of the state’s law enforcement agencies.
The cities of Puyallup and Tacoma, as well as unincorporated Pierce County, saw property crime rates drop at similar levels to Lakewood over the past decade, according to WASPC statistics.
Zaro credits his city’s decline to stepped-up policing and increased awareness among pawn shops and second-hand stores that don’t want to sell stolen goods.
In the most recent case, the police found the suspects after a Lakewood couple spotted footage on their home surveillance system of two men trying to steal their lawnmower. They called 911 and provided police with a clear image of the men. Patrol officers recognized them from an incident the night before, Johnson said. Police say they admitted the thefts, and one offered to take a ridealong with Johnson.
“They were looking for crimes of opportunity,” Johnson said. “An open garage.”
They stole to “support a pill habit,” he said.
After the suspect identified 24 homes, Johnson spent two days recovering the stolen lawn equipment from pawn shops spanning from Olympia to Federal Way. He tracked down the stolen merchandise through a statewide database used by second-hand stores and pawn shops to record transactions. He learned the men sold 56 items to different shops, netting $3,000.
43.6 per 1,000 people Lakewood’s 2015 property crime rate
The men were charged and are awaiting August trial dates.
At last week’s return of the equipment, Tacoma resident Aramis Défort was happy to see his red Craftsman mower among the tools.
“It’s one year old,” Défort said as he spotted it with the help of Johnson.
The lawnmower was taken from Défort’s Tacoma home while he napped inside after working in the garden on a hot afternoon.
“It feels less stressful now, but the actual day I was upset thinking: ‘This shouldn’t happen,’ ” Défort said, adding he always closes his garage door but forgot the day of the theft.
The state-certified court interpreter said he was happy to have the $362 piece of equipment back.
“I need to cut the grass,” he said.
Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro suggests these steps to reduce likelihood of becoming a victim:
▪ Always lock doors
▪ Close the garage door if it isn’t in line of sight
▪ Store all outdoor lawn equipment in a locked shed or bin
▪ Know who should be coming and going from neighbors’ property; report suspicious activity
▪ Report thefts to police
▪ Take a photo of or write down serial numbers to help police identify stolen property
Top 10 stolen property items in 2015:
▪ Computer hardware/software
▪ Credit/debit card
▪ Household goods
*Information from National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) submissions by Washington law enforcement agencies to Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.