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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Area's Largest Cities Post 14% Drop in Crime

March 30, 2000|KATIE COOPER and HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Crime plummeted nearly 14% in Ventura County's four largest cities during 1999, surpassing a statewide decrease of 13.2%, according to preliminary figures released Wednesday by the California Department of Justice.

Ventura saw by far the largest drop in crime, 18.2%, ranking it 21st among the 76 California cities covered in the report that measured municipalities with populations exceeding 100,000.

An increase in robberies and aggravated assaults pushed up the number of violent crimes in Thousand Oaks nearly 10%, but Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Kathy Kemp questioned the state's accuracy on the aggravated-assault figures for the city. She said her records show a decrease in the number of incidents in which a person used or threatened to use a weapon.

"Well, we're obviously still one of the safest cities," said Kemp, who ends her stint as the acting police chief for Thousand Oaks this week.

The city of 117,600 reported only 5.5 crimes per 1,000 people. That figure is slightly ahead of Simi Valley, at 6.1 per 1,000, which ranked as the nation's safest city in 1998, according to FBI statistics.

Overall crime as measured by the state dipped 10% in Simi Valley, while the number of violent crimes fell by more than 27%. It was the only one of the four cities to report no homicides. The report does not include larcenies or arson.

Oxnard had the county's second-steepest drop in crime, falling nearly 13%, while violent crimes--including homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault--fell 8.9%.

Oxnard Police Sgt. Marty Meyer credited Neighborhood Watch groups, increased patrols and gang enforcement divisions for contributing to the sharp decline. He also said that since the city opened a Police Activities League in 1995 for teens, violent crime among that age group has dropped each year.

"Most teen violent crime happens between 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.," said Meyer. "Our centers are open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., so we've really taken a bite out of that."

Oxnard also reported a 27% decrease in vehicle thefts, which Meyer said was due to a bait car used to lure thieves.

"We park it where there are a number of vehicle thefts, and then the person hops in but the car won't go," he said.

The city had 15.4 crimes per 1,000 residents.

The decreases across the county are consistent with a statewide drop in violent and property crimes, such as burglary and vehicle theft.

The survey, known as the California Crime Index, was based on crimes reported during 1999. The Department of Justice releases survey results periodically throughout the year, tracking local crime rates in the state's largest cities.

Although Ventura reported the largest drop in overall crime, the city had a 30% increase in aggravated assaults.

But Lt. Gary McCaskill of the Ventura police said because the city had only 168 felony assaults in 1998, an additional 50 the following year made the change appear larger than it was.

"We had such a small number to begin with," McCaskill said. "Any increase makes a big percentage change."

The city, which reported 11.6 crimes per 1,000 people, had three homicides in 1999, and rapes, robberies and property crimes were down as well.

Thousand Oaks, which reported no homicides in 1998, had two fatal stabbings in the city last year, the state statistics show.

The most recent case occurred Nov. 11 when 34-year-old David Smith was killed during what neighbors and law enforcement officials have said was a fight between him and the former husband of his girlfriend.

Deputies later arrested Ram Roland Gonzales, 41, on suspicion of murder. He remains jailed awaiting trial.

On June 26, Antonio Gonzalez, 45, was found dead on the sidewalk outside a rental home owned by Conejo Valley Unified School District board member Dolores Didio.

Sheriff's Department spokesman Eric Nishimoto said Wednesday that detectives have a suspect in the case but believe he has fled the country.

Thousand Oaks was also hit with a number of robberies. Cmdr. Kemp said 39 such felonies, up seven from the previous year, were mostly purse snatchings and strong-arm robberies.

Although the city has recently been plagued by a string of bank robberies--six so far this year--only three banks were hit in 1999.

Kemp said a special task force is assisting local financial institutions in avoiding robberies, including advising bank managers to observe customer behavior more closely and to install additional cameras if necessary. She said so-called "bandit barriers"--bulletproof glass set up to wall off tellers--is prohibitively expensive for the smaller institutions.

Even though Simi Valley reported the steepest drop in violent crime among the county's four largest cities, the police have been stymied by a suspected serial rapist who has attacked 12 women since 1996. Seven of those attacks were attempted rapes.

"It's an aberration to our status as America's safest city," said Police Chief Randy Adams.

Two attacks occurred earlier this month, and the previous two were reported last May and last November.

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