Police break string of high-dollar burglaries, continue to investigate

Leslie Carper, of Lawrence, checks on a storage unit at A1 Self Storage, 1717 W. 31st Street, which was ransacked by thieves in May. Three people arrested Wednesday are facing charges in a case that police say links this burglary with more than a dozen others this year.

On May 4, a Lawrence woman found her rented storage unit ransacked, with thousands of dollars worth of musical instruments and recording equipment missing.

Three days later, a resident in the 2400 block of Alabama reported a Gary Fisher mountain bike stolen. The next week, in the 2100 block of Kasold Drive, a man reported that he was assaulted by a burglar returning to steal from him for a second time.

These kinds of crimes happen every day in Lawrence, and many remain unsolved. Between 500 and 600 burglaries are reported here each year, and many more go unreported because residents don’t believe the offenders will ever be caught or the property returned. In June, North Lawrence residents became so fed up with a local theft problem that they said they would turn to state legislators for help.

But last week, the Lawrence Police Department said it had solved at least 20 local burglary cases, arresting three people suspected in a string of meth-fueled burglaries and thefts dating back to the beginning of the year. The arrests came after a three-month investigation by two patrol officers. One of the officers broke the case while responding to an otherwise unremarkable domestic disturbance, said Sgt. Trent McKinley, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman.

Police on Wednesday arrested two men and a woman who each now face more than a dozen charges in connection with burglaries in April in May. Most notably, they are charged in several cases in which suspects allegedly backed rented moving trucks up to storage units at A1 Self Storage, 1717 W. 31st St., and emptied them after cutting the locks. One suspect is facing a single charge of methamphetamine possession. McKinley said more arrests and charges were possible as the investigation continues.

Storage problems

The case was unusual, McKinley said, in part because of the amount of property involved: an estimated $77,000 in stolen furniture, electronics, sports memorabilia and other assorted property. Both the alleged thieves and the police at times had trouble finding space to store it, McKinley said.

During the investigation, police found that thieves had looted so much property from storage units and residences that they ended up renting storage units of their own to hold the ill-gotten goods, McKinley said.

And the police retrieved such a large quantity of stolen goods that they had nowhere to keep it, resorting at one point to the unprecedented step of storing it in rented moving trucks parked outside the police station. McKinley said the case illustrated the cost of the thieving that goes on in Lawrence every day.

“If you do things little by little, it sometimes seems insignificant,” he said. “But when you piece it all together, you say ‘these people have been involved in a spree here.'”

The clue that opened up the investigation came on May 17, when Officer Jamie Emerson spotted a checkbook that did not seem to belong in the home where the officer had responded to a domestic disturbance. As it turned out, the checkbook had been reported stolen from a storage unit belonging to Leslie Carper, 52, of Lawrence.

Carper had reported on May 4 that someone had ransacked her storage unit, making off with thousands of dollars in recording equipment and musical instruments left behind by her late ex-husband.

A local musician, he had left behind a drum set, vintage rock and roll posters from the 1970s, speakers, recording equipment and a large public-address system. Carper intended some of the things eventually to go to her daughter, and assumed the equipment was safe. An employee at the storage company called to ask if Carper had moved her things out of the unit, she said. Carper told the employee “no,” and went over to the storage unit to check it.

“When I opened the door, it was gone,” Carper said. “It was big enough to park a car in, and it was empty. There was a whole studio’s worth of equipment.” The thieves had left behind some empty boxes and a few items that were too heavy to carry, Carper said, but carried away many of the valuables.

The officer who responded noted that the thieves had cut the padlock securing the door. A1 Self Storage, which declined to comment on the burglaries, had kept security cameras on the premises for years, but they were no help. They were reported stolen, too.

Besides Carper, other residents were experiencing very similar burglaries around the same time, including several at the same self-storage facility. As the police officer took a report from Carper, employees also checked the storage unit next to it because the lock appeared to be cut. They opened the door to look, and all appeared to be normal.

But when the man renting the unit went to check on it a few days later, “I opened it up, and it was empty,” said Ronald Rowland, 73.

He had rented the unit to hold household items and sports memorabilia he’d collected over decades at his home in Lawrence as he and his wife moved into an apartment. It was all gone: baseballs autographed by Bob Feller and by Albert Pujols, “hundreds of thousands” of baseball cards, dozens of Kansas University basketball souvenirs signed by players over the years, a $4,000 set of china and a vast collection of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” toys Rowlands had collected with his son years ago.

“It’s just a lost feeling,” Rowlands said. “Like, what the heck happened? It’s hard to replace it.”

The officers returned to where they had found the checkbook and started asking questions, which led to more interviews with people who police believed were involved with drug-related crimes.

A crime wave linked to meth

While police are reluctant to name individuals as alleged drug users, McKinley said, the patrol officers who investigated the case believed many of the thefts were in some way driven by methamphetamine, McKinley said.

The case appeared to be just what Officer Shannon Riggs, a veteran of the Lawrence Police Department’s drug enforcement unit, predicted three months ago. He told the Journal-World then that he had seen signs that meth, and the crime that goes with it, were on the rise in Lawrence. Brazen property crimes, committed in repetitive fashion, like a group of thieves returning to the same storage units night after night, were exactly what he expected to see, after watching meth ravage southeast Kansas counties where he worked a decade ago.

When the officers decided they had enough evidence, they sought out and arrested Jacob P. Paine, 33, Cori D. Nehrbass, 33, and Travis M. Darrow, 33, all of Lawrence. Two of the three suspects arrested Wednesday appeared in Douglas County District Court Thursday, charged with multiple felony counts of burglary, theft and other charges. A third has yet to appear in court.

Douglas County prosecutors charged Paine with 10 felony counts, including aggravated burglary, burglary, theft and possession of methamphetamine, along with misdemeanor counts of theft and criminal damage.

Nehrbass, who has a criminal record in Douglas County dating back to 2006 that includes convictions for drug possession and burglary, is facing 12 similar felony counts. Darrow was also arrested on suspicion of multiple thefts and burglaries, and will appear in court to face charges on Aug. 27. Darrow spent time in Kansas prisons after being convicted of theft and drug possession last year.

Paine and Darrow were in Douglas County Jail Friday, with bond set at $30,000. Darrow posted a $50,000 bond Wednesday and was released, pending his first appearance on Aug. 27. Court-appointed attorneys representing the defendants in the case could not be reached for comment.

In all, police said they solved six burglaries of storage units at A1 Self Storage, several thefts and break-ins scattered throughout town, and series of burglaries of storage units at an apartment complex in the 2100 block of Kasold Drive in which one man was assaulted.

The cost

McKinley said he gave credit to the patrol officers who managed to link several otherwise routine cases together through painstaking investigation. However, he said, police have also made difficult choices in the past to make it possible. “This is the result,” McKinley said. “But it comes at a cost.”

Because property crimes are investigated by the patrol officers — Lawrence has detectives only for person felonies such as robbery and homicide — investigations like this one happen between urgent calls from injury accidents, domestic violence and bar brawls. The department long ago pulled some officers from school resource positions and traffic duty to give officers on patrol more time to follow up on cases.

In this case, many of the victims had some, but not all, of their property returned to them. It is typical, McKinley said, for items like expensive tools and copper wire to disappear quickly after a theft.

Rowland recovered some speakers, but his sports memorabilia remained missing. Carper received some of her mother’s belongings and a china tea set, but the musical equipment her late ex-husband had left behind for their daughter still is gone, which continues to upset her.

“These people need to know, it’s not just property,” Carper said. “It’s not just things, or the five dollars you’re going to get. This is people’s lives, this was my daughter’s inheritance.”