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Joplin's police chief warns about post-tornado looters and scams

The Missouri town's death count rises to 132, and people show frustration about delays in identifying many of the dead.

May 28, 2011|By Kim Murphy and Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
  • Amanda Carper holds her son Silas, 5 months, as she searches the rubble of the home of her grandfather in Joplin, Mo. He was killed in the tornado that roared through. Now officials are warning about looters and cleanup scams.
Amanda Carper holds her son Silas, 5 months, as she searches the rubble of… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )

Reporting from Joplin, Mo. — As more residents ventured back into Joplin's massive tornado zone Friday, sifting through wet belongings and shoveling aside debris, police warned against a small number of nighttime looters who have plundered the 6-mile-long path of the violent twister.

"Wrapped up in what we view as debris is what's left of people's lives," Police Chief Lane Roberts told reporters, declaring that his force was "saturating" the damage zone and had already made arrests in the cases of 17 thefts and three burglaries.

"I'm happy to say that each person responsible for that conduct is now enjoying the hospitality of the city of Joplin," said Roberts, who did not specify how many looting suspects had been detained. "Please understand, we are going to be very, very proactive. It is the only way we can ensure that people who have already been victims of something horrendous don't continue to be victimized by their fellow human beings."

Photos: Tornadoes plague Midwest

In a similar vein, Missouri Atty. Gen. Chris Koster said he had appointed investigators to look for cases of price gouging, fraudulent charities and cleanup scams that typically plague disaster zones.

"Right now, we feel actually very, very good about the way things have transpired over the last several days and the spirit of cooperation that has permeated this community, but we want you to know we will remain vigilant," he said.

In a meeting with city residents Thursday, he warned: "Over the next couple of weeks, people are going to knock on your doors … and they're going to say, 'For two or three thousand dollars, I will clean up the wreckage that exists on your property. Give me the check and I'll come back tomorrow.' ''

"Don't sign those checks until the work is done," he said. "Protect yourselves. Protect this community."

The official death toll from Sunday's twister rose to 132, amid growing frustration over delays in confirming the names of the dead and determining how many residents remained unaccounted for.

Andrea Spillars, deputy director of the state Department of Public Safety, said federal and state investigators had been able to shrink the list of missing persons over the last 24 hours from 232 to 156, despite the addition of 22 new names.

Ninety residents' names were removed after credible reports that they were alive and accounted for, she said.

Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles said no one had been found alive in the rubble for the last two days, though authorities had completed four full sweeps of the entire 6-mile-long, half-mile-wide zone.

He said that with the search dogs exhausted, investigators were focusing on "targeted" searches aimed at "literally hundreds" of areas in which human scent had been previously identified by the dogs.

A curfew remains in place in the affected area between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., and though reports of looting have been relatively few, residents who have not removed their belongings or who are continuing to live in lightly damaged houses along the outskirts are worried.

Rhonda Schmidt, a 60-year-old hotel employee, said she was asleep Thursday night when three men tried to slice through her screen to enter her house, which has electricity only via a cable run from her son's house nearby.

Schmidt said her son fortunately was out for a late-night walk, spotted the looters and called police, who quickly arrested them. Then he woke her to tell her what had happened.

"I just thought, OK, that's one more thing," she said.

Arielle Speer, 27, said she saw people loading clothes and a devastated apartment building's washing machine onto trucks with Arkansas license plates Tuesday night. Her suspicions were heightened when she picked through the rubble after them and found a purse left open, its wallet emptied.

"Storm brings out the best and the worst in people," she said.

Concerns about the possibility of looting have been a frequent refrain on the local talk radio station that acts as a clearinghouse for the community.

"We're not Chicago; we're not New York," a DJ chastised his listeners after a Red Cross volunteer recounted spotting looters. "We're the heart of America."

Photos: Tornadoes plague Midwest

kim.murphy@latimes.com

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Matt Pearce contributed to this report.

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