Several young adults from Ramona are believed to be doing the "hot prowl" burglaries in San Diego Country Estates, according to an investigator who spoke to residents Monday night. Up to 16 of the residential burglaries have occurred since January, according to Sheriff's Detective Thomas Seiver. He said he believes the suspects are part of the Ramona community but he declined to provide more details.
Seiver talked to about 150 people at Pocket Park in the Estates who wanted to know how to prevent more burglaries and protect themselves.
"Hot prowls" are burglaries in which residents are home at the time, Seiver said. He said the recent series began "roughly in January" and the burglars are getting "more sophisticated" and stealing more items. The most recent incident was overnight on Wednesday.
The suspects have entered through unlocked doors and stolen from unlocked vehicles in driveways, mostly from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., according to Seiver. Some incidents have occurred during daylight, when suspects have rung a doorbell. When no one answered, they went through a side or back door. Four people were taken into custody for a string of burglaries from January to March but the incidents continued, Seiver said.
He said the suspects are not afraid to go through gates. Some of the burglaries have happened when dogs were in the home, so residents should not rely on dogs barking or their own ability to hear prowlers, he said. People should keep a phone and flashlight by their bed, Seiver advised. No one has been injured in the burglaries, however a knife was moved in one incident, leading investigators to believe that a suspect wanted to be armed, he said.
Seiver stressed that locking doors of homes and vehicles is the single biggest prevention tip.
Several people at the Monday night gathering asked what they should do if they hear a prowler.
"If you turn a light on and say, 'I'm calling the cops,' that would probably work real well on these type of suspects," Seiver said. "These people are cowards. That's why they're sneaking around in the dark."
If the prowler is inside, Seiver advised residents to get everyone in the family in a room, lock the door and call 9-1-1.
Neighbors said people are talking about using baseball bats or paintball guns to defend themselves or scare away prowlers. They asked about their legal rights. Seiver said they have more rights if they are inside their home.
"If you are outside your house, you are going to have some legal issues," he said. "If you are inside your house, and you believe your life is threatened, you can use whatever force is necessary to defend yourself. But there's a civil legal side as well as a criminal legal side. You could lose a civil case and then lose your house. Is it worth it?"
Sheriff's Lt. Julie Sutton told residents they should not take the law into their own hands. She said her department is doing everything they can to stop the trend.
Seiver asked for patience and understanding.
"Sometimes we don't have a prosecutable case yet. We just want to stop it for now."
Crime Prevention Specialist Barbara Wallace told residents that they should go as far as locking their vehicles inside their garages.
"Look at your landscaping, to see if anyone could hide there," she said. She also advised residents to check windows and doors to make sure they are secure. The Sheriff's Department has some publications that provide tips.
Seiver said some people are driving around the community to try to spot the burglars but that can actually hamper the investigation because residents may call in to report these people as potential suspects and that uses up valuable resources and time.
If residents realize someone has been in their home or prowling on their property, they need to call the Sheriff's substation as soon as possible, Seiver said.
The non-emergency Ramona substation number is 760-789-1200. If the line is busy, keep trying, staff stressed.
Wallace advised residents to keep abreast of crime in their area by logging on to www.nixle.com and www.crimemapping.com . People can register on the Nixle site to get alerts by email regarding crime, missing persons and traffic problems. The Crime Mapping site gives the street and block number of recently reported crime.