Investigators across the region are working together to hunt down thieves who have had a field day lately stealing from residential construction sites.
But St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said residents need to work together to help protect themselves and to help law enforcement capture the elusive crooks.
"It's amazing that if a dog is barking, we'll get six calls from residents about it," Watson said. "But if someone sees somebody taking a refrigerator down the street, we get none."
Watson said the brazen thieves have stolen everything from copper wire and electrical supplies to appliances.
"We had a deputy who was building a house in the Villa Hills area who had the front door stolen," Watson said. "Who takes a front door?"
The nature of the crimes originally made Watson believe that it was one group responsible, perhaps a rogue contractor. But he said more than $500,000 has been taken from construction sites all across the county over the last year. And he thinks all that stealing couldn't have been done by one person or group.
The stealing is so widespread that Watson said it was the main topic of conversation at the most recent monthly meeting of county law enforcement officials held in April.
"This thing has been going on for years," Watson said. "It sort of rises and falls over time. But this is one of the worst surges I can remember."
Watson said they have also been taking high-end appliances. At one house near Millstadt thieves in October stole $60,000 worth of items. That included a $7,000 stainless steel barbecue grill, a $5,000 gas fireplace and about $5,000 worth of interior light fixtures.
Watson said residents should take the following steps to protect their home while it's under construction:
* Make sure it is secured as best as possible with locks on windows and doors installed and in use.
* Hire a reputable contractor. While it's tempting to hire someone on the cheap, you're less likely to be victimized by an established and trustworthy contractor who has a reputation to uphold.
* Talk to your new neighbors. Make sure they know who you are and who should be on your property. Ask them to call the local authorities if they see anyone they think shouldn't be there either because they don't recognize them or because they're there at hours when work isn't usually going on.
The Sheriff's Department brought in suspects for questioning in November in connection with the thefts. But they passed a polygraph test and were released. Watson said no other suspects have been questioned since then.
Anyone who spots suspicious activity during evening or early morning hours at construction sites is asked the call the Sheriff's Department at 618-277-3500.