On the prowl

Ellensburg reacts to an abnormally high month of car prowls

Eric Rosane, Co-Editor

Ellensburg can sometimes be quite the quiet town. For resident Joel Ratcliff, 33, that perception changed the night of Wednesday, March 14.

“My two favorite pastimes are shooting guns and [listening to] rock-n-roll, so I’m a little hard of hearing,” Ratcliff said. “But I swear I heard a woman scream ‘help, help. They’re going to kill me.’”

It was around 9:30 p.m. on a tranquil night on the block of 1900 Trails Edge Drive. Ratcliff had just put his kids to bed and was out on his front porch enjoying a cigarette when he heard the yelling. The screaming sounded like it was coming from a few blocks down.

Assuming it was a domestic dispute that had taken a turn for the worst, Ratcliff called the police.

Around midnight Ratcliff noticed lights coming from outside, panning across the walls of his house. Outside he found a police officer combing the neighborhood; they were looking for a suspect from a burglary.

According to police reports, two juvenile suspects broke into a home on the 1800 block of Bluegrass Avenue with a garage door remote found in one of the resident’s cars. No parties were injured during the break-in.

Stefan Piccone, 43, and his wife caught the prowlers snooping in their kitchen and chased them outside. Piccone pinned one of the suspects down and called for the neighbors to call the police.

“He told me that he was from the westside and that he was homeless. But he had clean clothes on,” Piccone said. “I know when I see homeless.”

The suspects had prowled multiple cars and police recovered stolen items from both the house and cars that linked the suspects to a stream of car prowls.

Ellensburg Police verified in a facebook post on March 29 that both suspects linked to the prowling spree and break-ins were in custody.

Nine other cars had been prowled that night. That morning, Ratcliff’s neighbors began calling in to the police department. Although he never filed a report with the police, Ratcliff’s car was among those prowled.

“We live on a dead-end street, we didn’t even think that we lived in a high-risk area,” Ratcliff said.

Ratcliff awoke that morning to see his 2007 Subaru Outback’s door ajar. He had left the car unlocked. Eight of the nine cars prowled that night had been left unlocked.

Despite the fuse box, glovebox and center console being ransacked, nothing was taken.  On the floor of the car sat a GPS and some high-grade flashlights worth over $100. These were items that, according to Ratcliff, could have been easy steals. He said that he found it strange that nothing was taken, so he never filed a report with the police.

Ellensburg saw a high increase in car prowlers during the month of March with over 27 instances of car prowls reported to the Ellensburg Police Department and at least tw0 instances of unreported prowls. March 10 and March 15 saw a majority of the reports, which amounted to over half of the incidents. This was due to a spree of linked prowls that were individually reported.

“We used to preach ‘lock your doors, lock your doors, lock your doors,’” Captain Dan Hansberry of the Ellensburg Police Department said. “But those days of stealing stereos are over.”

According to Hansberry, car prowls are primarily a crime of opportunity, meaning that it’s a convenient, low-risk opportunity for someone to steal something and make a quick buck. He also said that even the sight of old phones and loose change in a cup holder might be enough to persuade someone to prowl. It’s also not unlikely that car prowlers might take advantage of more than one victim by checking multiple cars, which may lead to sprees.

“You can walk through a parking lot, but how many handles do you think you could check before someone sees something going on,” said Eric Twaites, assistant chief of Central Washington University Police.

From Ellensburg Police reports throughout March, the types of items reported stolen varied. In a report dated March 9, a person’s purse was stolen out of an unlocked car the night prior. In a March 10 report, during one notable spree, a victim’s Xbox One was stolen out of the passenger’s side of his car. The victim was in the process of moving and forgot to lock his vehicle.

According to police reports, most car prowls don’t happen at a specific place in Ellensburg. Most reports show that prowls can occur throughout the city, though they don’t happen too often. Most reports show that car prowlers strike during the night, leaving residents to file reports in the morning.

“We always try to promote general safety practices. If you’re leaving your vehicle, don’t leave anything valuable in your vehicle,” Twaites said. Prowlers will likely check under your seats and hidden areas prior to breaking in.

Captain Hansberry uses a different approach than most would. When he knows that he’s going to be out around town or on a hike, he makes an effort to remove all valuables and important items from his car. Even though it’s day, he recognizes that being in a secluded place opens him to the possibility. He then leaves his car unlocked so that prowlers won’t attempt to break a window.

“If they want to take some really bad 80s CDs, they’re welcome to it,” Hansberry said.