Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tour Van Break-Ins Have St. Louis in Music-Industry Crosshairs

Posted By on Wed, Nov 12, 2014 at 6:00 AM

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Unlike neighboring Illinois, Missouri's laws on burglary make no mention of theft from motor vehicles. Instead, prosecutors in St. Louis most often turn to the charge of first-degree property damage when going after those accused of stealing from autos.

Rachel Smith, the chief prosecutor for the community affairs bureau of the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office, says the law has evolved over the years. No longer does a thief have to steal a certain dollar amount worth of valuables from a car in order to be charged with a felony. All prosecutors have to prove for first-degree property damage is that the thief knowingly damaged a car in order to get inside and steal contents from the vehicle or steal the car.

"And we do it," says Smith. "We get the convictions. So I think the law, and the prosecution end of it, is good. But it's a different question altogether in the difficulty for police in gathering the evidence they need. The more sophisticated criminals get in and out quickly and don't leave physical evidence. That's not a legal-system issue, it's an evidence issue."

The cover of the November 14, 2014, Riverfront Times. - RFT PHOTOILLUSTRATION. SOURCE MATERIAL: CSA IMAGES.
  • RFT Photoillustration. Source material: CSA Images.
  • The cover of the November 14, 2014, Riverfront Times.

Crooks who do get convicted — often by eyewitness testimony, fingerprints, video surveillance or a confession — can get sentenced to up to seven years in prison for first-degree property damage. Though if the criminal has a light record, a more likely sentence is probation, says Smith.

Venue owners at the late October meeting called for police to use a bait van or electronics that could be tracked once stolen to help catch the thieves. Captain Dan Howard, of the police department's Fourth District that patrols downtown and midtown, says the department is coordinating with venue owners about using "technology strategies," along with increased patrols and undercover officers, to catch the burglars. However, Howard says, any kind of extra response by police "could definitely be put on hold" when a grand-jury decision comes out in the investigation of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and police are needed elsewhere.

Another option is to catch the crooks when they try to sell the stolen gear. Howard says that while some items are likely to be sold on the streets, he expects the rest to eventually end up in pawn shops. When the goods show up, pawn-shop merchants photograph the seller and scan the person's driver's license. The item's description and serial number is also entered into Leads Online, a nationwide database where police can look for stolen items.

Howard says he doesn't necessarily expect the stolen gear to travel far before being sold to a pawn shop. "It wouldn't surprise me for some of this stuff to show up right down the corner."

Sam Light Loan Company at the intersection of North Jefferson Avenue and Olive Street is indeed right down the corner. It's less than a mile from the Firebird, Fubar, Plush and the Schlafly Tap Room. Forest McClain manages the shop and says he's seen more laptops, tablets and other electronics pawned this year compared to years past, but most are used as collateral for short-term loans that get repaid — not outright sales or loans that are forfeited.

When police do come to seize stolen items that have been sold or loaned to the store, McClain says, nearly 75 percent of the time it concerns jewelry. The next most popular items are stolen bicycles. Police rarely come to pick up stolen electronics, he says.

Until police make an arrest in these cases, Cracchiolo says, venue owners will remain anxious about van break-ins. He's worried, too, that recent attention about the crimes might attract more thieves. "If it was a group of six guys who were doing it before, now there's sixty," Cracchiolo surmises.

"It's never going to go back to 'normal.' It's never going to go back to where it was,' he continues. "We're going to have to survive with increasing staffing and hyper-vigilance. All we have to do is assume the problem is over and let our guard down, and it'll happen all over again."

The Districts' Lawrence appreciates the concern of St. Louis venue owners and the police. "It's cool that the city is taking action," he writes. And he says the group, which performed at LouFest this year, would "for sure" be back after the band's new album is released in February, prior break-ins be damned.

"We've had really good shows in St. Louis. We'll just take more precautions knowing our luck," he notes.

Lawrence adds: "It's a shame the music scene has gotten overshadowed by this issue."

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