It’ll happen to someone else, but not to them.
That is, at least, what residents Miriam and Raymond Quan admitted they used to think, even though they had a neighbor here in San Marino fall victim to a home burglary four different times.
“Of course, I was wrong,” Raymond Quan said, explaining how the couple had been threatened by burglars twice late last year to a packed audience of fellow residents at Webb Theatre on Monday. “And I can tell you, once you’ve been burglarized, your brain chemistry just changes.”
The Quans were among several other locals who volunteered to testify before this group of about 175 people Monday, which assembled under the moniker of Citizens for a Safe San Marino. Longtime resident Dr. Ghassan Roumani, his daughter Nadia and several of his friends and neighbors have helped to form a larger community movement aimed at educating residents on how to protect themselves from the rising tide of burglaries and also how to help San Marino Police Department be more effective.
“We believe that if there is a more informed community that we will be able to do something about this issue,” Nadia Roumani explained to the audience, which included city and school officials, members of SMPD and San Marino Fire Department and the gamut of candidates for City Council.
The Quans’ story was an especially haunting way to begin the program because Miriam Quan, home alone, discovered the home had been broken into when she stepped outside of her second-floor master bedroom to find the intruder walking up the stairs. Her suspicions had been roused when she heard footsteps downstairs.
A review of the home’s security footage showed that three hooded men exited a new — and therefore non-plated — Mercedes-Benz sedan who had driven by and backed up and masterfully scaled the front yard wall in seconds. One man shattered the bottom pane of a back French door and somehow crawled through it, presumably as a scout, surmised Raymond Quan, who provides photographs to the Outlook.
“The alarm was on, but because they broke out the window, and didn’t open the door, it didn’t trigger,” he said.
Fortunately, Miriam Quan slammed and locked her bedroom door, yelled out the window for help and called police. The intruders, however, fled successfully.
Months later, on New Year’s Eve, the Quans again spied something suspicious. Four times in a 22-minute period that afternoon, Raymond Quan said he saw the same U-Haul rental van drive by his home, after which the driver exited and knocked on the Quans’ door under the guise of delivering a Sears purchase to someone named Parker.
The neighborhood watch-minded Quans knew no one named Parker lived nearby and called SMPD again. Nowadays, their lives have totally transformed, with the motion sensors in every part of the home being active at virtually all times. They often remain locked in a bedroom to avoid triggering the sensors.
These tactics were familiar to residents and law enforcement alike. Burglars, as Police Chief John Incontro explained, make good use of the automobile and tend to operate in groups. They’ll case neighborhoods and often knock on the front door under the guise of having a mistaken address. They’ll call home phones — even unlisted ones — to jam up a potentially automated 911 dial from an alarm system.
When in the act, burglars tend to break into homes when most people work, and they’ll go for back doors. Master bedrooms are obvious targets and then thieves will move onto fridges or freezers, where many people keep valuables. Second-story balconies are popular entryways because homeowners often don’t install motion detectors on second elevated stories.
Resident Joe Petrillo, a former deputy with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and current owner of a security company, explained how the psychological and emotional impacts of home invasions are synonymous across zip codes.
“You can try to understand their emotion, but the truth is, you can’t understand it until you’re a victim,” he said of burglary victims.
Petrillo had his own story to contribute that evening, as earlier that day, while turned around to speak with a friend at a restaurant for a couple of minutes, someone was brazen enough to steal his glasses that he had placed on the table, as if to illustrate how quickly criminals can act when potential victims have their guard down.
“We have to assist [our law enforcement],” Petrillo said. “We have to work with them. We have to try to do everything we can to put more officers on the street. We need more black-and-whites on the street. Those are the best deterrent to burglars.”
Year-to-date, SMPD has investigated 31 more burglaries than it had last year, the vast majority of which are residential. Of the 81 total so far this year, 36 of the homes didn’t have alarms at all. Nine of the homes had alarms that weren’t active. Two homeowners had canceled the alarms, mistakenly believing them to be erroneous.
Incontro said his department is well into developing a crime reduction plan and has officers participate in an overtime detail with neighboring departments (who reciprocate the arrangement) in an effort to curb area crime. The department will, after the City Council OK’d the move last month, hire additional cadets (for a total of six) who will handle relatively minor investigations so patrol officers and detectives are less likely to be tied up when burglaries occur.
Residents freely shared their own stories, too. One explained that he had all services at his home coincide with trash pickup so that his gate was only ever open once a week, when several people were there. Another had a friend whose hacked phone and location finder revealed when he wasn’t home. Many commented on state propositions 47 and 57, which in an effort to free up jail and prison space for more violent criminals had the unintended consequence of putting burglary convicts back on the streets more quickly.
Heidi Gabor, who lives in South Pasadena but whose parents live in San Marino, said her new home’s state-of-the-art custom security system did little to impede the gas mask-clad burglar from breaking in after 10:30 p.m. July 9 when he seemed to know when the outside lights switched off.
The suspect and his accomplices managed to escape, despite Gabor being notified of the break-in remotely (she was not home) and calling police. Nevertheless, she said she felt robbed of the comfort of her own home. The security camera footage assured that.
“Though the loss was relatively small in dollars, the loss to my family was great,” she said. “I can’t go into my backyard with my kids. I’m terrified the guy in the gas mask is there. I can’t leave my kids at home during the day, even though they’re in middle school and high school, because I’m afraid someone will knock at the door.”