Metro-East News

Recent Belleville burglaries have residents ready to fight back

Belleville officials discuss crime in the city

Belleville Police Department Chief William Clay, Captain Matt Eiskant, and Mayor Mark Eckert discuss crime in Belleville, IL in southern Illinois near St. Louis, MO.
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Belleville Police Department Chief William Clay, Captain Matt Eiskant, and Mayor Mark Eckert discuss crime in Belleville, IL in southern Illinois near St. Louis, MO.

Alissa Valdejo had just arrived home with her 11-year-old daughter after a Feb. 5 Super Bowl party when she noticed something was wrong.

Cabinets were flung wide open; closets were ransacked; a jar full of change was missing.

Someone had broken into her house.

“This is my home,” Valdejo said. “This is where I’m trying to raise my daughter. I’m a full-time mom, and I work full time. It’s just me and her. The safety of my child is number one. I work hard for what I have, and to have someone thinking they can just take what isn’t theirs — it’s a violation.”

The 41-year-old businesswoman immediately left the house on Portland Avenue with her daughter and called 911. Belleville Police investigated the scene and later arrested three juveniles in connection with the break-in and another burglary, as well as a car theft on the same street, the same night. In Valdejo’s case, the burglars had climbed in through an unlocked window.

I work hard for what I have, and to have someone thinking they can just take what isn’t theirs — it’s a violation.

Alissa Valdejo, victim of home burglary

The burglaries on Portland Avenue are a cause for concern for some residents of Highland Neighborhood on the city’s southeast side, says Donna Young, the president of the Highland Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood is made up of roughly 600 homes, most of which were built in the 1920s.

“It seems like all of the sudden there’s an increase. We don’t know if this is kids, or if it’s planned,” Young said. “But it just motivates us to not only find out what’s going on, but to reinforce to our neighbors that you need to be observant; you need to lock your doors; you need to lock your car doors.”

Reported burglaries increased 20 percent from 2015 to 2016 — that’s up from 391 to 471, according to annual crime reports. From 2014 to 2015, Belleville saw a 15 percent increase.

But those numbers don’t mean the city is experiencing a longterm trend toward more property crimes, says Belleville Police Department Chief William Clay III. In 2002, for example, Belleville saw the same number of reported burglaries as in 2016 — 471. In 2009, there were 500 reported burglaries. In 2004 and 2007, there were 321 reported burglaries.

The average number of burglaries between 2000 and 2016 was 406. The highest number was in 2009 at 500, after the financial crisis began. The lowest was in 2004 and 2007 at 321.

“You cannot set a trend in a year and then say something’s going on,” Clay said. “We do see ups and downs.”

Where do burglaries happen?

Burglaries — like those on Portland Avenue — are often part of a “spree,” the chief said, where the same burglar hits more than one house in the same area.

“It could be any particular area. You just happen to be the unfortunate soul that happens to be where these people are conducting their business,” Clay said. “They’re just walking around to see what they can get.”

A map of burglary calls within Belleville from Dec. 31 to Feb. 2 shows break-ins happen citywide without discretion. The map reflects calls to service, not necessarily what the police officer finds when he or she arrives at the scene.

Belleville’s 85 officers are tasked with policing the city’s 23 square miles, Mayor Mark Eckert says. And to make connections and arrests, detectives need time and resources. Clay says the detectives who investigate burglaries are equally as important as the patrol officers who deter them.

Capt. Matt Eiskant is one of those investigators. He says he and fellow detectives “follow the evidence” to find connections that could lead to making an arrest.

Who are burglars?

Eiskant says burglars are sometimes brazen juveniles. Sometimes they’re repeat offenders. Sometimes a suspect arrested for one burglary has been responsible for 12. In most cases, burglars have one thing in common: They’re looking for cash or guns, or both, but not necessarily high-dollar items, Eiskant said.

The individuals who burglarized Valdejo’s home on Portland Avenue didn’t steal laptops or flat-screen televisions. They stole change from a jar and a checkbook. Valdejo says there was about $200 worth of change in the jar, though the burglars left the jar. She canceled her checkbook and canceled her account as soon as she discovered her checkbook was gone.

“They left the laptop, the tablet, the TVs, didn’t take anything like that,” Valdejo said.

Most crimes like burglary are driven by drug addiction.

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly

Burglars come to Belleville from all over the region and the city itself to commit crimes, says the police chief. A suspect might steal a car in St. Louis and drive to Belleville to commit a crime, or vice versa. A kid who goes to school in Belleville might come from a neighboring community to commit a crime because he or she “knows Belleville,” Clay said.

Often the crimes are connected to drug use, says St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly.

“Most crimes like burglary are driven by drug addiction,” Kelly said in an email.

That’s why cash and guns are sought by burglars — they can directly fund a drug addiction.

How can Belleville residents take action on burglary?

While police can’t patrol every street in the city, Ward 7 Alderman Phil Elmore says there are ways individuals and neighborhoods can protect themselves against burglaries.

“We cannot stop crime,” Elmore said. “There’s always going to be an amount of crime. How we respond to it is what we work on.”

Elmore says he works with his ward’s neighborhood associations and neighborhood watch programs to provide training to homeowners in how to report suspicious activity and in what to look for.

We cannot stop crime. There’s always going to be an amount of crime. How we respond to it is what we work on.

Ward 7 Alderman Phil Elmore

“Facts like the time of day or a type of car may sound simple, but the kind of information they are instructed to give has been essential to the police department,” Elmore said.

Eiskant, the police department captain, says burglars are often looking for the quietest and easiest way to steal — in other words, property crimes are often crimes of opportunity. Unlocked cars, open windows and unlocked doors are easy targets for burglars. And when residents feel safe in their neighborhoods, it’s easy to become complacent. Eiskant urges residents to always lock their doors and windows, and to call the police department if they see anything suspicious.

“Please, bother us,” Eiskant said. “We want you to call us.”

Valdejo, the woman whose home on Portland Avenue was burglarized, said she plans to install a surveillance system and additional motion-sensor lights outside her home. She already had a home alarm system, but had forgotten to set it that day. Even still, the alarm would not have gone off because the burglars did not have to break anything to enter the home, Valdejo said.

Aside from scheduling annual neighborhood holiday parties, the association in Valdejo’s neighborhood organizes town hall meetings with candidates for mayor and alderman. In April, Young says, the association plans to hold a public meeting with police to discuss the recent rash of burglaries and thefts. On March 8, Elmore will hold an open meeting with the police chief and county state’s attorney at 6:45 p.m. at the Belleville Police Station community room.

At 6:45 p.m. on March 8, 7th Ward Alderman Phil Elmore will have an open meeting with the Police Chief William Clay III and St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly in the Belleville Police Station community room. The Highland Neighborhood Association hopes to have a public meeting with police in April to discuss the recent rash of burglaries and thefts.

But there’s an unofficial town hall meeting that takes place 24 hours a day, seven days a week — on social media. Ward 7 has a Facebook page where residents talk about everything from serious crimes to making sure residents clean up after their dogs, says Elmore, the Ward 7 alderman.

“A lot of these crimes have been going on since the 80s. People have been opening up unlocked car doors for a long time, but now we are spreading the word, and now we’re more observant. The use of Facebook and surveillance cameras makes everybody more aware of surroundings, and awareness is key,” Elmore said.

But inaccurate or incomplete information shared on Facebook can cause unnecessary fear, the police chief said. Information from police radio traffic alone, for example, can be misleading because it is “one-dimensional,” Clay said. Information on a police radio is only a basis for what is actually happening and is not verified. Calls on the radio reflect information given to the dispatcher and only basic communication between officers thereafter.

Despite a pair of worrisome burglaries in her neighborhood and fears flying on Facebook, the president of the Highland Neighborhood Association says she won’t succumb to fear.

“You don’t want to flee the neighborhood,” Young said. “You don’t want to say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be bad here.’ This stuff happens everywhere. You can’t run and hide. The police only have so many resources, so it’s up to us to help protect our neighborhood.”

Fear won’t get us anywhere, and it won’t solve anything.

Alissa Valdejo, victim of home burglary

Valdejo, the woman whose home was burglarized, says she loves Highland Neighborhood. She says she plans to stay — and to always make sure her windows are latched.

“Fear won’t get us anywhere, and it won’t solve anything,” she said. “It won’t stop people who can just take stuff. I’m a banker. I’m going to leave the policing to the professionals. All we can do is get to know our neighbors, get to know their habits, and hopefully we can protect each other.”

Kelsey Landis: 618-239-2110, @kelseylandis

At a glance

Belleville burglaries, thefts and robberies by the numbers:

  • There were 471 reported burglaries in 2016.
  • There were 48 arrests for burglaries in 2016. Though that number is much lower than burglaries reported, the same suspect is often responsible for more than one reported burglary.
  • Thefts, including retail, made up for 58 percent of reported crimes in 2016. Burglaries accounted for 24 percent.
  • Between 2000 and 2016, thefts accounted for an average of 64 percent of all crimes, while burglaries accounted for an average of 20 percent.
  • The highest number of burglaries in the past six years occured in 2012 with 478 reported burglaries. The lowest was 321 in 2004 and 2007.
  • The average number of burglaries between 2000 and 2016 was 406. The highest number was in 2009 at 500 after the financial crisis began. The lowest was in 2007 at 321.
  • In 2002, the same number of burglaries were reported as in 2016 — 471.
  • There were 198 vehicle thefts in 2002. In 2016, there were 80. The number of vehicle thefts has fallen under the 16-year average of 116 for the past nine years.
  • Between 2000 and 2016, there were an average of 50 robberies per year. The most robberies occurred in 2008 when the financial crisis began, a total of 78. In 2016, there were 50 reported robberies.
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