State

Stanislaus County sheriff detectives step up theft surveillance

Stanislaus County sheriff's detectives warned thieves who decide to steal this holiday season: You're being watched.

Property crimes detectives will be conducting several undercover sting operations, using video surveillance in hope of catching thieves red-handed.

It's nothing new. Detectives have been using high-tech video equipment to catch thieves since 2003. This year, however, detectives are increasing the number of operations.

"During the holiday seasons we generally see a spike in property crimes," said Detective Mick Hardenbrook. "We are planning several operations for the next few weeks that will hopefully make an impact on these property crimes."

The sting operations start with a detective placing a desirable item in an area hit hard by thieves.

The detectives then watch the item until it is stolen. They move in to arrest the suspect soon after the item is taken.

The items used in the operations can be anything from heavy farm equipment to bicycles. The detectives look for trends in what is frequently stolen and then use the item in the operations.

The items used as bait belong to the Sheriff's Department, so the sting operations result in arrests without having to risk the property of residents.

The detectives did not disclose the type of video equipment they're using, fearing it could jeopardize their operations. The Stanislaus Farm Bureau and the U.S. Marshal's Office provided some of the high-tech equipment for detectives to use.

The conviction rate of suspects arrested in these operations is high. Almost every defendant takes a plea deal rather than try to fight the case in the face of overwhelming surveillance evidence, said deputy Tom Letras, a sheriff's spokesman.

In one case, the suspect unknowingly admitted he committed the theft while trying to dispute the video surveillance detectives were showing him.

"He said, 'That's not me, because that's the back of my head,' " Letras said. "He was trying to claim it wasn't him because you could only see the back of his head in the video."

Letras said the video surveillance saves the department a lot of time and money that normally would be spent trying to obtain enough evidence for a conviction.

This year, detectives have arrested 18 people in 31 sting operations.

"When you take one of these thieves off the street, who knows how many potential thefts we prevent," Letras said. "They don't stop stealing until they get caught."

Thefts decline

Undersheriff Bill Heyne said the number of thefts in the county's unincorporated areas has declined over the past few years. From 2007 to 2008, the number of thefts dropped from 2,096 to 1,886. Through the end of September this year, 1,169 thefts were reported.

"I believe that this is a direct result of all of the proactive work from our detectives," Heyne said.

The detectives have caught thieves at all times of the day. Sometimes, they're amazed by the brazenness of some thieves.

In one operation, a 200-pound piece of construction equipment was put in a rural area near Ceres. The equipment was so heavy it took two detectives to move it into place.

The item remained there for at least a week before a woman pulled up in a car. Letras said she got out and picked up the equipment — by herself — and placed it in her trunk.

When the detectives moved in to arrest her, she started complaining of back pain. In doing so she made herself a suspect in theft and fraud.

"She was actually collecting disability payments for injuring her back," Letras said. "Yet, she was strong enough to pick up the equipment that took two of our detectives to move."

Hardenbrook said most of the people they have arrested in these operations have prior theft convictions. He added that many habitual thieves know about the sting operations, and detectives hope they think twice before stealing someone's Christmas gifts.

The detectives plan to focus on areas that are hit the hardest by thefts, such as strip malls, shopping centers, farms and agricultural processing centers.

Detectives will conduct sting operations in the county's unincorporated areas as well as Riverbank, Waterford, Patterson and Hughson, where the Sheriff's Department provides police services.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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