September 17, 2014

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Thefts plague county’s southeastern townships

COLUMBIA TWP. — Tony DeCarlo is angry, and he’s not alone.Thieves have struck his dealership, West Side Auto, not once, not twice, but five times in the past year and a half. They made off with 14 catalytic converters, a snow plow, several radiators, a gas grill and the intake of a custom Cadillac racing engine, he said.

On one occasion, the burglars struck the state Route 82 business in broad daylight.

Steel and copper scrap brings a good price these days, said Tom Jacabucci of Heritage Plumbing on North Station Road, which has been hit by burglars three times this year.

“Pretty much everything that isn’t bolted down is fair game for these people these days,” he said. “It’s easy pickings, and these criminals know it.”

Merchants and homeowners in southeastern Lorain County are scared and angry about the break-ins that have become common during the past month.

County sheriff’s records report five in Columbia Township and a combined 26 in Eaton and LaGrange townships between Aug. 23 and Sept. 17, but locals said there have been dozens of other run-ins with burglars that have gone unreported.

Some of the problem is caused by kids, but there also appears to be a more advanced criminal element at work in the townships, according to Lorain County Sheriff’s Capt. Richard Resendez.

“We’re aware of the spike in crime, and we do have some plans in the works to try and fix it,” he said Wednesday, two days after a petition bearing the signatures of 70 break-in victims was handed over to Columbia Township trustees.

Details of those plans are sketchy, but include stepping up the sparse sheriff’s patrols through the townships, Resendez said.

That may be too little, too late, fears Patricia Rolko, who circulated the petition. People are already arming themselves and keeping midnight watches over their properties, she said, fearing they will be the next victims of the near-daily thefts.

“It’s a vigilante approach, and somebody’s going to get hurt,” she said. “We have people out there with guns, not afraid to use them. It will only be a matter of time before someone does.”

Rolko and a few other business owners are banding together, each paying about $80 a month to hire private security guards on weekends.

Columbia officials pay off-duty deputies $16.50 an hour to do extra patrols two days a week — they won’t say which days — and at a Sept. 17 meeting, residents asked for that service to be extended to five days a week. Trustees Dale Rundle and John Pojman said they don’t have the cash.

“The townships need to get together and find a way to protect themselves. The commissioners don’t think it’s their job,” LaGrange Township Trustee Barbara Harper said.

She joins Rundle and Pojman in criticizing the Lorain County commissioners, saying funding cuts to the sheriff’s office means fewer patrols and more crime. The small townships can’t afford to have their own police forces, making them easy targets for criminals, she said.

Resendez argues that his budget has nothing to do with the problem. He’s putting the same number of officers on the roads now that he did before the commissioners slashed his funding, he said.

Regardless, many are fed up with a situation that’s been bad for years.

“There’s always been a lot of that sort of crime here, but it’s getting worse and worse,” said Richard Dorsch, owner of Columbia Beverage & Deli, also on state Route 82. “It’s a beautiful community, and a shame I have to put shutters on my doors.”

Burglars grabbed $6,000 in cigarettes from Dorsch’s store in a matter of minutes in December 2005, stuffing them into two duffel bags and making a clean getaway.

His security cameras caught the break-in, but the footage never yielded an arrest. Since then, he’s installed a mechanized steel barrier that lowers over his business’ doors at night, and found his investment to be effective.

George Turner hasn’t had such luck. Twice this month alone, burglars have raided Turner Automotive and made off with seven catalytic converters — a trend dealers and mechanics said is all too common.

Scrap yards will pay about $65 for the steel in one of the units, Turner said.

Turner had infrared cameras pointed at his state Route 82 parking lot during the recent thefts, and captured images of two men — one tall and the other stocky, both in their mid-20s — sneaking onto the property. The images aren’t enough to identify the culprits, though.

Several business owners on Hawke Road said they suspect a white Ford minivan is involved.

Resendez is urging residents to lock car doors and remove valuables from vehicles overnight. He also recommends installing security systems.

Flatline Automotive owner Dave Colombo said his alarms went off twice in the same day earlier this month, scaring would-be thieves away both times.

“You can hear those alarms go off a mile away. It’s the only thing that’s really been effective in keeping these scumbags away,” he said.

Contact Jason Hawk at 653-6264 or jhawk@chroniclet.com.