Some criminal investigations unfold like a cracked windshield, says Tustin PD Det. Shonn Rojas.
They fan out in all directions.
A recent arrest of a suspect in the burglaries of four storage facility units illustrates that truism, and also shows how sharing information amongst law enforcement agencies, and safeguarding commercial properties with cameras and other crime deterrents, can yield positive results.
In July 2017, a public-storage business in Tustin started being hit by burglars who would gain entry to the facility at night. They would use bolt cutters to cut off locks on storage units or remove the doors.
By the time New Year’s Eve 2017 rolled around, 43 units in the public-storage facility had been burglarized.
Detective Rojas assisted the business by conducted a security site assessment of the property and recommended various security features to help curb the rash of burglaries. Because the business was still implementing their surveillance system, TPD utilized a covert camera, which was installed near the business. On Dec. 31st all eyes were on the business when a minivan pulled up around 3 p.m.
Two men were in the vehicle. The driver punched in the gate code and drove in.
A facility manager, schooled by Rojas to be on the lookout for suspicious activity, noticed the person attached to the gate code wasn’t either of the two men in the minivan.
That got his attention.
As the facility manager conducted his security walk of the property he kept his eyes on the two men.
At one point, during their roughly 90-minute visit, the men were seen inside a known tenant’s storage unit. The property manager saw one of the men wheeling suitcases into the minivan while the other was seen using bolt cutters to cut off a lock to an adjacent storage unit.
That really got his attention.
The two men, realizing they had been seen, quickly left.
The facility manager called the TPD to report the apparent crime. It was until the following day when the facility had discovered an adjacent unit had been tunneled through from the opposite side. This was the unit the men were seen inside by the manager. The burglars tunneled through the adjacent units and stole items from the neighboring units. It was undetermined how the men gained access to the original unit before tunneling through to the other units.
“So now we had four victims,” Rojas said.
All the TPD had to go on was a description of the vehicle — a white or silver minivan with Arizona license plates — and only vague descriptions of the suspects.
But thanks to covert surveillance camera, Rojas was able to get images of the suspects’ vehicle. He noticed a giant dent on the driver’s door.
Rojas, a detective in the TPD’s General Investigations Unit, drafted an “Attempt to Identify” bulletin and sent it to law enforcement agencies throughout Orange County. Such bulletins commonly are distributed at start of shift briefings so officers can be on the lookout for suspects, cars or other things associated with crimes.
Meanwhile, the investigation revealed the renter of the primary storage unit had his vehicle burglarized the day before in Aliso Viejo. Among the items taken was a key to the storage locker that also noted the gate code and storage unit number.
Fast forward to early in the morning of Jan. 6.
That’s when Irvine PD officers responded to a medical-aid call at the Irvine Spectrum.
When officers arrived they were directed to a minivan parked in the shopping center. As they approached the vehicle, they saw a man asleep behind the wheel and a female asleep in the passenger seat.
The Irvine PD Officer noticed the huge dent in the driver’s door.
That dent and vehicle description reminded the Irvine PD Officer of the “Attempt to Identify” bulletin the TPD had circulated, and he called Rojas around 3 a.m.
Usually when the phone rings in the middle of the night it’s not going to be good news. However when the IPD officer told him “I think I have the minivan you’re looking for,” Rojas was thrilled. He quickly readied himself and responded to the scene.
LINK TO BREAK-IN
Rojas found the Toyota Sienna minivan, a rental from John Wayne Airport that was supposed to be returned in December, packed floor to roof with property and bolt cutters. The renter of the vehicle was listed as Kenneth Dunn.
He saw paperwork and medication belonging to the original victim of the Dec. 31 storage unit break-in — the man from Aliso Viejo whose car was burglarized Dec. 30.
Among the items in the minivan were laptops, license plates, suitcases, printers, pet carriers, toolboxes, video gaming systems, and binders containing personal identifying information.
Rojas ran some of the license plates and discovered some possibly had been taken in another series of storage unit burglaries in Huntington Beach that happened in September 2017 — that whole crack-in-the-windshield thing.
Rojas confirmed one plate belonged to one of the 13 victims of those HB storage burglaries.
“Sometimes when you discover one crime, it spirals out of control.” Rojas said. “For us, we had to focus on the crime in Tustin, but when the investigation steered in another direction, we notified other law enforcement agencies. A lot of things started happening when we started to identify the owners of all the property.”
For example, Rojas discovered a license plate in the minivan that had been stolen off a Porsche in Newport Beach. The victim hadn’t realized the plate had been stolen.
He also found items in the minivan that belonged to a deceased person — indication a possible case of identity theft. This was later linked to another O.C. police agency’s stolen vehicle investigation and an identity theft investigation on Jan 4, in which Kenneth Dunn and an additional suspect were arrested at a motel.
The woman in the minivan was arrested on an unrelated warrant and isn’t believed to be connected to the Dec. 31 burglaries in Tustin, Rojas said. The driver was also arrested at the scene for drug related charges and providing a false name to Irvine PD officers. The driver also knowingly admitted to driving around with the stolen property.
Kenneth Dunn, 30, has been charged with four second-degree burglary charges, in addition to charges of receiving stolen property, unlawful taking of a vehicle and possession of burglary tools, for the New Year’s Eve break-in.
Dunn pleaded not guilty to the charges on Jan. 26, 2018. He remains in custody at Orange County Jail in lieu of $200,000 bail. His next scheduled court appearance is March 28.
Court records show that since late March 2017, Dunn has been charged with 11 separate felony and misdemeanor cases, including the Tustin storage unit heists that happened on Dec. 31, 2017.
The other male suspect believed to have aided Dunn in the Dec. 31, 2017 storage unit burglaries remains at large, Rojas said.
“I enjoy doing these types of investigations,” he said of complex property crimes. “I learn a lot from working cases like this.”
Rojas said that following the Jan. 6 arrest of Dunn, there were six additional burglaries at the same Tustin storage facility.
“The business is doing everything that they can to fortify their business as quick as possible,” he said. The business has also made some changes as suggested by Rojas.
Rojas said he doesn’t yet know if Dunn or the outstanding suspect are connected with any of the other 39 burglaries at the business prior to Dec 31st.
“It could be another crew that still is outstanding,” said Rojas, adding that DNA evidence is still being processed in an attempt to identify suspect(s).
Rojas did say, however, that Dunn and his male accomplice picked the wrong time to burglarize the Tustin storage facility in broad daylight on Dec. 31, 2017.
“They thought New Year’s Eve would be an easy score,” Rojas said. “They didn’t know a camera would be watching them. They picked the wrong day and the wrong place, because that place was under a microscope.”
Some of the identified property has been returned to their rightful owners and Rojas is working on identifying the other property owners in hopes of not only returning their property, but to possibly identify them as other theft victims.