Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Moving Mystery

Ah, the fun of moving into a new house!  Last Tuesday we drove out to it (clean across the Phoenix valley: about 50 miles each way) to get the water turned on, and noticed that the back door had no doorknob or latch or hole for one;  it was barred by a two-by-four set into two wooden sockets, and there was a doggy-door in the bottom closed with a thin wooden panel.  The water-man came and turned on the water and went, and we found that we had a lot of minor plumbing to do: washers and valves and a faucet to replace.  We got some new locks and argued over whether we'd need a locksmith to install them, then went off to dinner and drove home.

Friday we came back to do some of that plumbing, repair the fence, and set up an appointment with an electrician -- to get the repairs, to get the inspection, to get the power turned on. I found that the windows were unlatched, but immovable thanks to warping.  Rasty noted that the next northward neighbors, beyond the vacant lot next door, included a couple of playful kids and a pregnant lady.  I noticed that the cars were absent from the driveways of all the houses on the block, which rather strongly indicated that all the men and most of the women were out at work.  Rasty also noticed that the two-by-four in the back door was gone, replaced by a slat-board off the southward gate of our back-yard fence.  Curious.  Again, we did our repairs, went to dinner, then headed home.

Tuesday morning we came back, primarily to meet with the electrician, also to set an appointment with a local handyman (recommended by the local hardware store) to do the small repairs.  First thing we noticed was that somebody had p!ssed in the dry dirt near the front porch, and dropped a cigarette butt there (not my brand).  The second thing we noticed was that there was a crack in the front window's lower pane, which hadn't been there four days ago.  When we got into the house, the third thing we saw was that the back door wasn't barred and the doggy-door was kicked open.

Next thing we saw was that the water-heater was gone.

"Burglary," Rasty pronounced.  "Call the cops."

I did that -- the town is small enough and far enough from the city that 911 connects to the sheriff's office -- while Rasty checked out the rest of the house and found that nothing else was missing. The latch had been broken loose on the northward gate, as if the gate had been wrenched open.  Also, whoever had taken the water-heater had carefully disconnected the hoses instead of just cutting them.

"They wanted it for a working appliance, not just for the metal," Rasty deduced.  "It was used, but in good shape.  You could sell it to any appliance store."

About then the sheriff's deputy arrived, and we showed him everything.  I pointed out the p!ss in the front yard and the cigarette butt.  "Does the sheriff's office have a forensics lab?" I asked.  "Could you get DNA off that?"  "We do," he said, "And it's big, but even so it's loaded with work, and this is a low-priority crime.  You wouldn't get an answer back for months."  Ah, well. He took pictures of the space where the water-heater wasn't, and of the other clues, and the other damage done, and wrote up a report and gave us a copy.

As soon as he took off, I called our house-insurance company and reported the whole thing.  Unlike a good neighbor, they promised to phone us back in one to two days.  Meanwhile, Rasty paced around reconstructing the crime.  Then we went to visit the neighbors, to see if anyone has seen or heard anything.
That was when we found that the next-northward neighbors weren't there anymore.  The house was empty, the cars were gone, the yard was full of discarded furniture, and the gate was padlocked.  They'd moved out, kids and pregnant lady and all, in the past four days.  We also found that everybody else was indeed out at work, except for one lady who "no hablo Ingles".

Then we sat down to figure out what had happened.  The robber(s) had come first to the front door and tried to pry open the window, but found it stuck shut.  Unwilling to make noticeable noise breaking the window, they instead went around to the northward gate and wrenched it open -- which, presumably, would have made less noise and drawn less attention than breaking the window.  Then they kicked out the doggy-door, crawled through, unbarred the back door, came in and took out the water-heater, loaded it into a truck and drove it away.  They bothered to close the broken gate behind them, so nobody noticed anything until we showed up.

Now, whodunnit?

Well, as the chief on CSI always says, what does the evidence say?

Okay, the driveway closest to that gate is gravel, so a truck could have pulled up there without showing any tracks:  no evidence there. The next yard eastward contains some dogs, who are more likely to bark than not, unless they're used to whoever is in our yard -- and they didn't go into loud and continuous barking during the robbery, which might have alerted any neighbors at home at the time.  There were other cigarette butts -- of the same brand -- near the one in the front yard;  somebody stood there for at least 20 minutes -- probably the lookout -- and wasn't worried about being seen p!ssing in public, for all that he (and his buddies?) didn't want to make noise by breaking the window, and didn't make noise by setting off the neighbor's dogs.  The dirt was still damp where he'd p!ssed on it -- outdoors, in Arizona, even in late winter -- which means that it was sprayed there within 24 hours before, or less.  That would be when everybody was at work, except for the occasional housewife, such as Ms. "No Hablo Ingles" across the street -- while any time after 5 PM would have had a lot of people home and possibly on the street. The only valuable fixtures in the house were the water-heater, the stove and the metal pipes and wiring in the walls;  of all those, the quickest and easiest to grab was the water-heater.  Whoever stole the heater knew that the heater was empty of water -- therefore light enough to carry -- how to detach it without damaging it, and where to sell it quickly.  That oddly replaced two-by-four reveals that somebody had sneaked into the house before, scoped the place out, and spotted that water-heater.  Somebody had studied the house, noticed that the northward gate had a weak latch -- even after I'd repaired the fence -- and could easily be wrenched open.  Finally, even with the doggy-door kicked open, an adult would have had a seriously hard time crawling through it -- but a child wouldn't.          

Conclusions: first, the robbers knew the neighborhood, and that house, well.  At least one of them, probably a little kid who could fit through the doggy-door, had been in there before, knew what was in the house, and reported it to an adult -- most likely a relative -- who decided what to grab and how, and when.  They hadn't robbed the house in any of the months that it was standing empty, but only this last weekend -- after the new owners (us) had started showing up to repair the house with the intention of moving in soon -- so there was something about this weekend which impelled the robbers to steal something they could take and sell quickly.  They also had reason to think they could get away clean.  The robbers included the lookout, a little kid to get through the doggy-door, and two adults to carry the water-heater.  Now, where in the neighborhood would you find an adult-and-kid robbery team who fit all those parameters?

The evidence points to those moved-out northward neighbors.  They probably needed the extra money to help with the move -- a motive I'm well acquainted with.

So the question is, do I call back that sheriff's deputy and tell him what we've found -- and concluded?  The thieving neighbors are well gone, possibly in Mexico by now, and this is -- as the deputy pointed out -- a low-priority crime.  We can possibly find our missing water-heater just by shopping the local appliance stores, and the insurance company should damn-well cover the cost.  We've pretty well solved the crime to our own satisfaction, and the local sheriff's department can't chase the thieves outside our own county.  What good would reporting the news do, after all?

Should I even bother?

--Leslie <;)))><         


Prof. Godel Fishbreath, Otter said...

Well if your evidence could convince the local police that they did the crime, it might stop them doing the next one.
While your reasoning seems sound, it is not nailed down definite, and is IMHO, not likely to convince anyone of anything except that you might have had it in for those neighbors.

Now if there is a smooth surface, fingerprints can be lifted, and they can be lifted from the neighbor's house -- presumably any ex boyscout could do this though it may be better done if official, or if the process is photo documented.

Now all that is just my opinion, I am not a lawyer or associated with the police. So I count for little.

Paradoctor said...

Report it; you've done most of the cop's work for them. Also, chat this up with the new neighbors. This'll get out your rep as one not to be fooled with.

But I don't think circumstantial evidence like this would count enough in court. But those ciggie butts would give DNA evidence.

Leslie Fish said...

We've chatted with one of the new neighbors, who promised he'd watch the house for us. We also got the gates and back door secured. Next is the meeting with the electrician, locksmith and handyman.

We also learned that those vanished neighbors had lived there only 5 months before taking off. The picture of the neighborhood is beginning to take shape.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

Mark Horning said...

In my nonexistant copious spare time let me know what you need.


windmills said...

Without dire need, I avoid talking to the police on principle. Also, if they couldn't be bothered to collect clear DNA evidence directly in front of them, I seriously doubt that your (admittedly, clear and cogent) line of deduction will cause them to drop the doughnuts and gather a posse. Like the man said straight to your face, it's a "low priority crime". Just my less than humble opinion, but you're not going to see justice and you're not getting restitution, except through insurance, why would you waste another minute of your valuable time on it?

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