Police track cat burglary patterns

Incidents escalate

30 Howard homes have been hit since August

December 18, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

Cat burglars with a knack for finding unlocked doors and snatching wallets, purses and laptops in the middle of the night have hit 30 Howard County homes since late August, prompting police this week to issue a warning and pull together a team of investigators.

Police suspect that three burglars have been operating independently of one another in Ellicott City, Columbia and Elkridge.

The incidents have escalated recently. On Wednesday night, a burglar entered five townhouses, three of which were vacant, at the Kaiser Park development in Ellicott City and stole money, a cell phone and jewelry. The apartment and townhouse complex is behind the Super Fresh grocery store on U.S. 40.

Cat burglars - thieves who specialize in entering buildings undetected - are so rare that the department normally does not track their crimes in a separate category. Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said that investigators met Thursday with a crime analyst to identify patterns and develop a strategy.

Entering houses "in the middle of the night when there's a good chance that someone is home is not typically a criminal's first offense," said Sgt. Mark Verderaime, who oversees Howard County's property crimes and arson unit. "You have to have some nerve to do that."

None of the homes has been entered by force, but the crimes pose great danger to the resident and the burglar, who could be shot or attacked by a frightened resident. Verderaime described the burglars as moving "in and out in 30 seconds" to avoid such an encounter.

"He or she is looking for something quick, something to get rid of quickly," he said. "They're not going to carry out your television set. They don't want a confrontation."

Police are telling everyone to lock their doors, close their garages and latch their windows. They also are asking people with sliding glass doors to lock the latch and place a wooden bar in the door's tracks.

"The situation isn't getting better yet, but because this is a crime of opportunity, thieves count on residents leaving their doors or windows unlocked," Llewellyn said. "This can stop if people lock up."

The burglars mostly are targeting narrow, tall townhouses so that it is difficult for sleeping residents to hear movement downstairs. The fact that the homes are connected also makes it easier for criminals to jump from door-to-door checking knobs and windows.

The burglars have escaped detection in most cases. In one incident, a resident heard an intruder; in another, the thief was spotted but not well enough for police to release a description, Llewellyn said.

"We don't think this is a group going from community to community," Verderaime said. "In each case, it's a single individual taking advantage of an opportunity."

Police are asking anyone with information to call 410-313-3200.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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