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The Region

Burglary Ring Hit Unlocked Cars in Laguna Beach

Crime: Residents in 'safe' areas left vehicles unsecured, and thieves targeted them. Officers had to rent a storage unit to hold all the recovered loot.

April 06, 2002|STANLEY ALLISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Residents in affluent coastal enclaves around Laguna Beach thought their neighborhoods were so safe they didn't need to lock their car doors or set their alarms.

This proved a perfect opening, police said Friday, for a crime ring allegedly responsible for dozens of burglaries over the last few months.

Authorities are still trying to determine how many burglaries can be linked to the ring. So far, officials said, hundreds of thousands of dollars in property has been recovered from burglaries in as many as 11 communities.

Police said a group of young people roamed the coastal streets, checking for unlocked cars. Some of the burglaries occurred in a gated community.

"There was definitely a pattern here," said Laguna Beach Det. Paul Litchenberg. "They had a definite style of going after only unlocked cars."

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A Persistent Problem in the Region

Unlocked cars have been a persistent problem in recent years in affluent south Orange County cities.

A study two years ago in Newport Beach found that 20% to 25% of car-related theft involved unlocked vehicles.

Laguna Beach police arrested five people between Feb. 19 and April 2 in connection with dozens of burglaries.

In some cases, garage-door openers in the cars were used to gain access to homes, police said. Two of the suspects allegedly spent the night of Feb. 24 in a stolen vehicle parked on a residential street scouting targets, said Laguna Beach Det. Chris Heuberger.

Travis Sprague and Andrea Hilliard allegedly broke into 15 cars in the Arch Beach Heights neighborhood that night and stole about $35,000 in property, plus a 1998 BMW, Heuberger said.

Detectives later recovered more stolen cars, auto parts, cellular phones and other items. allegedly held by two other suspects. Also arrested in connection with the string of burglaries are Eric Mack and Christopher Crawford. Their hometowns were not given. Police have not released the name of a fifth arrestee.

There was so much stolen property that the Laguna Beach Police Department had to rent a storage unit to house it.

"We tend to be overly optimistic about our safety because we are such a safe community," said Laguna Beach Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman. "We tend to forget that there are criminals out there who can figure that out."

People who want to see whether police hold their property should call the Laguna Beach Police Department at (949) 497-0377.

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