Police stress importance of neighborhood watch in keeping communities safe

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Clovis resident Dawn Smith’s home was burglarized Wednesday. The suspect rummaged through the house, throwing the computer to the ground, stepping on the monitor and took about 50 DVDs, among other things.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

“There she is,” Dawn Smith remembers hearing as her neighbor’s young daughter pointed at a blue van driving down North Oak street in front of their home.

“Bless their hearts, they took off after her,” she recalled, describing how, like a flash, neighbors were running after the van, one man jumping in his car to follow it.

Seconds later the van was stopped in the road a block away, blocked by the man’s vehicle.

Only moments before, the Smith family had sought out neighbors to find out if anyone had seen anything odd.

They had returned from an afternoon outing at the park to find their front door wide open and belongings in disarray — victims of a burglary.

As she approached the van, Smith was on the phone with dispatchers and saw her belongings through the windows.

Later, police “pulled out gobs of jewelry that was in her pockets and it was all mine,” she said.

The woman told police she knew Smith and had purchased all the items in her van and pockets from her.

“She keeps telling them that it’s hers and I kept saying, ‘those are my things’,” she said.

“I didn’t know who she is and why she picked our home or anything.”

The Smiths are still waiting to get their belongings back from police, who seized them Wednesday as evidence. Police arrested Denise Apodaca Sena, the woman in the van, on charges of breaking and entering and possession of stolen property.

She is being held on $10,000 bond, jail officials said.

Smith is hopeful her grandmother’s wedding and engagement ring, brought back from France by her grandfather in World War II, and the keepsakes she was saving for her son from his deceased father are among the items police have collected.

And Smith had to make a last minute run to the store Friday to replace a stolen freezer drawer full of meat intended for her 8-year-old son’s birthday barbecue this weekend.

The feeling of being invaded and vulnerability are undoubtedly present. But the most pervasive feeling of all is wondering how a woman was able to pull a van in her driveway in the middle of the day, take boxes from the porch she was saving for a yard sale and walk out the front door with box after box of her family’s possessions — without arousing suspicion.

“They just pulled up in the driveway and just loaded up their car straight out the front door… And just why she would drive back by, I have no idea,” she said, explaining police believed there was an accomplice, who was never found.

“It’s just upsetting to know that this happened in broad daylight. We know all our neighbors.”

Though thankful for the help neighbors gave in apprehending the suspect, and especially for the attentive little girl who remembered seeing the strange vehicle in their driveway, Smith said the incident has made her realize how important it is to know your neighbors and work together to keep the neighborhood safe.

Now she plans to get better acquainted with them at her son’s birthday party this weekend and talk about schedules, contact information and routines so that they can all be more aware when something isn’t right.

The importance of neighborhood watch groups is something police have been stressing for sometime, encouraging neighbors to get to know one another and report suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.

Burglaries are one of those crimes that ebb and flow in the community. One ring of thieves surfaces and hits houses until they are caught, creating spikes and dips until another group crops up to take its place, said Capt. Patrick Whitney.

Clovis police have a community relations officer whose job it is to meet with neighborhoods who are interested and help them form groups.

In Portales, Capt. Lonnie Berry said his department also has officers assigned to meet with residents and guide them through the process of setting up watch groups.

After a rash of home invasions last summer, Berry said several neighborhoods organized watches. Now the area is experiencing lower-than-average burglary numbers.

Police encourage residents to report suspicious activity, such as strange vehicles driving through slowly, people asking unusual questions in the neighborhood, suspicious door-to-door sales people, and even barking dogs. Because police know, “If a dog’s barking that doesn’t typically bark, there’s a reason for it,” Berry said.

Together, with attentiveness to out of the ordinary things and quick reporting, neighborhoods can prevent crime, he said.

Tips to prevent burglaries:

• Be aware of vehicles and people who belong to your neighborhood. Report things that are out of the ordinary: People asking strange questions, vehicles driving by slowly or parking and staying in their vehicles, suspicious salespeople.

• Excessively barking dogs that otherwise don’t bark can be a sign something isn’t right.

• Install bright lights around your house or motion triggered lights to decrease shadows that give burglars an advantage.

• Avoid planting shrubs, trees or placing other items near windows and doors. They provide burglars protection from view and easier access to your home.

• Talk to your neighbors and get to know them. If you’re comfortable with them, talk about unusual work habits, people that shouldn’t be at your home or other things that can assist in making your neighborhood a safer place.

• Find neighbors who are interested in starting a neighborhood watch and contact your police department to help you get started.