Whether it’s your car, your dog, your watch or your identity, if it gets stolen, the detectives in the Fullerton Police Department’s Property Crimes Unit will work the case.
Headed by Sgt. Mike Hines, the unit handles cases that involve stealing or destroying property, including auto theft, high-tech crimes, commercial and residential burglaries embezzlement, arson, vandalism, Internet fraud and identity theft.
With six investigators and a caseload of about 1,200, Property Crimes is the busiest investigative unit in the department, said Hines, a 20-year veteran of the department.
Three additional detectives in the unit who don’t get assigned cases include a terrorism liaison officer, a computer expert and a technology expert that works with the FBI.
“We are never sitting up here wondering what is the next thing to do,” Hines said. “There is never a lack of work to be done.”
The growth in technology in recent years has made identity theft the crime of the millennium and Fullerton has been as vulnerable as every other city.
Criminals can get access to personal information such as Social Security and driver license numbers along with other information and create false credit card accounts and retail charge accounts to purchase merchandise.
Identity theft cases can be particularly challenging for detectives.
“It’s hard to follow because you are trying to track a ghost,” said Cpl. Ginny Johnson, a detective in the unit for five years. “They are using your information. I don’t have a face to go with it.”
If the criminals purchase items over the Internet using a public connection such as the type in a Starbucks, tracking an IP address is extremely difficult although not impossible, Johnson said.
“I like it when our patrol officers get a suspect in custody with the items,” Johnson said “Then you can just follow the trail.”
It’s not unusual to arrest a suspect who is in possession of up to 50 cloned credit cards, she said.
About six months ago, Property Crimes solved a case in which the suspect was ordering merchandise online with a stolen IDs and having the items shipped directly to the victims’ homes.
He would track the delivery and then be sitting outside the property when the UPS truck arrived, pretending to be the person who ordered the merchandise.
Residential and commercial burglaries make up a hefty chunk of the unit’s caseload. “It is common for suspects to come from out of county and target homes and businesses in town,” Hines said.
Hines recalls a series of thefts of ATMs involving a brazen group of crooks who would dress in orange vests and hard hats and then stroll into convenience stores pretending to be workers assigned to pick up the ATM for maintenance.
The thieves would then load the ATM into a truck and drive off, right under the nose of an unsuspecting store clerk.
Through a DNA hit on a glove left at the scene of one of the crimes, the suspects were ultimately tracked and arrested.
Another case involving the theft of iPads from several Fullerton schools was eventually linked to a gang out of Moreno Valley.
After the gang members were arrested, the burglaries stopped, Hines said.
One of the more unusual Property Crimes cases over the past year involved multiple burglaries of sorority houses near Cal State Fullerton in which the suspect stole laptops, iPads, jewelry and … panties.
The suspect used social media to track his victims and knew where they lived and when they were out of the house.
That suspect was ultimately arrested.
The newest detective in Property Crimes is Brad Fernandes, who’s been with the unit for seven months.
One of Fernandes’ biggest cases involved the theft of backflow devices around town, costing the city thousands of dollars.
The devices prevent potentially contaminated water from flowing into a water supply.
Using predictive policing, Fernandes had a good idea where the thieves would strike next and on the second night of the investigation, the suspects were caught in the act.
“Up here, you have the time to work up the case and to do the investigation and really get it all together and set,” Fernandes said. “So when you go to arrest these people, you have everything. It’s all laid out. You feel good about what you’ve done to improve the quality of life for victims of property crimes.”