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West Valley Attracts More Than Its Share of Burglars

Crime: The region has L.A.'s worst record for home break-ins. The privacy and lush landscaping that lure residents also lure thieves, police say.

July 31, 2001|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A little more than a month ago, David and Charlene pulled into the garage of the Woodland Hills home where they have lived happily and securely for 27 years. Charlene walked inside. Seconds later, she ran out screaming. The house had been ransacked--burglarized.

"My wife was absolutely panicked," said David, 62, who requested his last name not be used for fear of retaliation. "She was just yelling, 'Don't go in! Don't go in!' "

But David charged into the four-bedroom house, grabbed one of his handguns and searched for an intruder. No one lurked inside.

The thief or thieves took money, jewelry, credit cards and a vintage stamp collection. They left other valuables, including a new digital camera that had been taken out of a box and tossed aside.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 16, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Film--A July 31 story on burglaries in the California section misstated the title of the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film classic, "To Catch a Thief," starring Cary Grant.

"The only good thing about this was, the guy was stupid," said David, an elevator repairman. "I mean the guy stole a big bowl filled with $30 worth of pennies and left an $800 camera."

The couple's home on a shady street lies in the heart of the Los Angeles Police Department's West Valley Division, the most burglarized region in the city. Last year, 2,138 burglaries were reported in the division, 100 more than second-place Devonshire and nearly 500 more than third-place Van Nuys. The West Valley burglary rate decreased slightly in the first half of this year.

"We're No. 1 in property crimes," said West Valley Capt. James Cansler.

Burglars Find Rich, Witness-Free Pickings

Last year, an average of 66 burglaries a day occurred throughout the city. The west San Fernando Valley was the most popular target, in part because lush landscaping and mature trees hide so many of its homes from view. Homeowners love the privacy. So do burglars.

"There's a lot of good stuff in those homes and burglars know it," said Det. Lindy Gligorijevic, leader of West Valley Division's burglary squad.

In addition, business-lined Ventura Boulevard is a gold mine for commercial burglars. And with 749 miles of streets, the LAPD's largest patrol area, the West Valley is a challenge for the police.

Even in the best circumstances, burglary is a difficult crime to solve, often because there are no witnesses. From Jan. 1 to July 14, 13,574 burglaries were reported citywide and police made 1,895 arrests for the crime, according to the LAPD.

Gligorijevic said her three detectives struggle to cover their broad swath of the Valley, which extends roughly from the San Diego Freeway to the far western reaches of L.A.'s city limits.

She typically begins and ends her day by sorting through thick stacks of burglary reports--up to 300 a month--to determine which cases are promising enough to warrant a follow-up.

"Unknown suspect fled in unknown direction," Gligorijevic read from one report recently. She shrugged. The case--$10,000 in children's clothing stolen from a Ventura Boulevard shop--does not make the cut.

Burglars run the gamut from the young neophyte who stumbles on an opportunity--an open bedroom window or a back gate left ajar--to professionals like the one portrayed in the classic film "It Takes a Thief."

"Sadly, we haven't interviewed anyone like Cary Grant," said Gligorijevic, referring to the movie's star. "The sophisticated cat burglars are rare. Mainly, the burglars are feeding a drug habit, usually methamphetamine."

Gligorijevic and her squad often go to Neighborhood Watch meetings to offer advice. She tells residents to lock their houses, go outside and pretend they don't have their keys.

"I tell them to figure out how they would get in the house," she said. "If you can get into your house without a key, then you know the burglars can, too."

She suggested ways to make a home unfriendly for burglars: First, set up thorny deterrents such as bougainvillea, cactus and rose bushes. "Burglars are inherently lazy," Gligorijevic said. "They are looking for easy money. They're not going to work hard to get in."

She also offered tips on protecting valuables.

"I tell women to put their jewelry in the Kotex box under the bathroom sink," she said. "Men [burglars] just don't like going there."

Fast Response Can Be Critical

If their homes are hit, victims can help the police by reporting the crimes immediately, Gligorijevic added.

That's what David and Charlene of Woodland Hills did, and it helped the police make an arrest in the break-in. The couple promptly reported an unauthorized charge, $1,300 for engine work and tires, on one of their stolen credit cards.

When David reported the credit theft the next morning, he was told of the new charge and called West Valley burglary Det. John Manoogian. "The cops aren't miracle people," David said. "If you don't help them, they're not going to get anyplace."

Using the information, Manoogian found that the newly repaired car was a Chevy Lumina, and tracked the car to a South-Central Los Angeles dealership where police say it had been bought by Lavar Brown, 24. The detective phoned the dealer, who had a surprise.

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