Montcalm County thefts result in arrests, continued investigations

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 1:53 pm on Friday, October 28, 2011

Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon Montcalm County Sheriff's Deputy Nick McConnell investigates a theft report in the Sidney area last summer.

Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon From left to right, Montcalm County sheriff's detectives Travis Rose, Robert McVey and Tom Goerge study theft files from last summer.

Above are people charged with crimes committed during a wave of thefts this summer; top row, from left, Ryan Bell, Levi Bush, Timothy Childers, Travis Coy and Rodney Franks; middle row, from left, Christopher Frohner, John Hiatt, James Howard, Robert Hulbert and Sean Oberle; bottom row, from left, Chase Plath, Meranda Rauch, Tyler Rivera, Ronald Slone and Jerry Welder. A breakdown of their offenses or alleged offenses is in a box on Page 2.

They range in age from 14 to 52 years old.
They are local and from surrounding areas.
They broke into locked and unlocked businesses, homes and vehicles in the city and in the country.
They stole items ranging from cash, CDs and cigarettes to jewelry, guns and gaming equipment to a quad and full-size vehicles.
They victimized people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the summer in Montcalm County and surrounding areas.
“We had a crime wave this summer, no doubt about it,” said Montcalm County Undersheriff Mark Bellinger. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Well, I didn’t think it would happen to me.’ Well, it’s happening. Crime can happen to anyone.”
He said the crimes leave an emotional toll in their wake with people losing the sense that their home is a safe haven.
“Home invasions are devastating to people,” Bellinger said.

‘Significant amount of break-ins’
The County Sheriff’s Office responded to 60 breaking and entering complaints from June through August.
“That’s a lot of (break-ins),” Bellinger said. “This is a significant amount of break-ins for the period of time.”
The Michigan State Police Lakeview post responded to 40 breaking and entering complaints and 38 larcenies from June through August, according to Trooper Kevin Ryan.
The break-ins included 27 residences, seven barns, pole barns, garages or construction sites and six businesses. The larcenies included seven residences, seven vehicles and one park-and-ride, five businesses, two cemeteries and one church.
Seven breaking and entering suspects and nine larceny suspects have been identified and charged. Police believe they know who committed several more of the crimes, but they can’t yet say for certain.
Ryan said about six different groups were committing break-ins in Montcalm County, but only one of those groups had local ties. All six groups were committing break-ins in multiple counties.
All group members have now been arrested through joint police work in several counties.
“Since our suspects have been arrested, our (break-ins) have diminished to almost zero,” Ryan said.
Home Township Police Chief Tim Irwin helped the sheriff’s office investigate in the Edmore area — one of the hardest hit areas of Montcalm County. He said various groups committed daytime and nighttime burglaries.
“It was a very dangerous and serious situation,” Irwin said. “Everybody worked together. We had a good team. They put a lot of people and manpower and hours into it. Things have calmed down now.”
Irwin believes the thefts are related to the high unemployment rate.
“Everybody is desperate without work and trying to survive,” he said. “I think it’s just the times. There’s a lot of people without jobs.”

‘Targets of opportunity’
While police believe most of the incidents were isolated, a handful appear to have been committed by small groups of people. Many of the crimes have resulted in arrests, but others continue to be investigated.
Edmore and Vestaburg were the hardest-hit areas of Montcalm County this summer. Sheridan was victimized as well, after — Bellinger pointed out — the Village Council voted to end their police coverage contract with the Sheriff’s Office.
Most of the crimes involved unlocked homes or vehicles, “targets of opportunity,” Bellinger called them.
“It’s like leaving your phone in your car or a $20 bill on your seat,” he said. “They want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. I don’t think they are looking for a confrontation.”
However, other crimes involved breaking into homes while people were inside — sleeping or otherwise occupied. These edgier crimes had many communities concerned, leading The Daily News to write an Aug. 19 story, “Can We Shoot Them? Residents Ready To Defend Themselves Against Larceny Intruders.”
“It has leveled off, mostly because of the work of all these agencies with their aggressive stance on getting those solved and getting these stopped,” Bellinger said of the crimes.
He credits local and surrounding law enforcement agencies with helping Montcalm County detectives solve many of the crimes — specifically the Home Township Police Department, the Michigan State Police Lakeview Post, Gratiot County, Isabella County, Shiawassee County and Baynet, which is the Sheriff’s Office’s equivalent of the Central Michigan Enforcement Team (CMET).
“Our detective bureau really shines when it comes to these types of incidents because they gather the information and they gather the evidence to link the criminals to these crimes,” Bellinger said. “All those other agencies have a part to play in this as well. This was top-notch police work.”

Putting the puzzle together
Solving the crime begins when sheriff deputies respond to a theft, gather information and process the scene. Deputies then turn over the information to sheriff detectives.
“The deputy brings them the puzzle and the detectives put the puzzle together,” Bellinger said. “They spend hundreds of man hours working on cases.”
Forget about comparing local crimes and convictions to CSI or Law & Order. That’s televised entertainment.
In reality, the crime labs in Grand Rapids and Lansing are back-logged for months. A four-month lag to have DNA and other evidence processed and returned would be a short wait time.
Sometimes, detectives are more likely to get a break when someone facing jail time offers to share what they know to have their own sentence reduced instead of immediate DNA evidence.
Many of the suspects are parolees, meaning they have previous experience with the system. They are able to compare notes with other inmates and know what to expect if they commit another crime.
“They’ve been educated,” Det. Tom Goerge said of previous offenders. “We have to be creative. We try to keep up, but we’re usually playing catch up.”
Goerge, a 22-year veteran of the sheriff’s office and the current Detective Bureau commander, said his small department needs to be multi-faceted to deal with nonstop thefts.
“A lot of these recent ones, the criminals don’t know any boundaries as far as counties,” he said. “We’ve worked really well with detectives from surrounding counties. We don’t care who makes the tackle as long as we’re in the game.”

‘Be vigilant’
Local officals have their own theories as to why theft was especially rampant this past summer.
“Drugs are a big problem,” noted Det. Travis Rose.
Montcalm County Prosecutor Andrea Krause agreed that thefts often have ties to drugs.
“The majority of these cases have involved defendants who sold property that was stolen so that they could then go buy and use illegal drugs,” Krause said. “These cases pose significant problems for us because of the underlying drug issues that defendants have.”
However, Det. Robert McVey noted some of the defendants come from “pretty good homes,” but get involved with the wrong people.
Detectives agree residents need to use common sense.
“We ask the public to be vigilant,” Goerge said. “Lock your doors. Keep an eye on your neighbors. If there’s a suspicious vehicle around, write the information down on your calendar. If you get a stranger coming to your door, don’t hide in the house hoping they’re going to go away. Respond, let someone know you’re home, but with a locked door. Respond and have a plan. Have a plan for small children and the elderly.
“Be willing to talk to police,” Goerge  added. “Be willing to help out. You’re our eyes and ears. It makes it more difficult when people know stuff and they won’t tell us.”


Summer of Crime info and states

• Late May: Tyler Rivera, 19, of Holt, allegedly broke into a hangar at the Greenville Municipal Airport and stole a four-wheeler. He was recently arrested and is awaiting trial. Amanda Engel, 19, of Greenville, and Vandel Stephens, 18, of Sidney, also were arrested for receiving and concealing the stolen property.
• June 25: Travis Coy, 17, and Chase Plath, 18, both of Sheridan, allegedly broke into an occupied house in Bushnell Township while the residents were sleeping and stole PlayStation 3 equipment. The youths were charged with first-degree home invasion and are awaiting trial.
• June 30: James Howard, 37, of White Pigeon, stole cash from vendors at the Trufant Flea Market, then hid inside a Trufant home, where the homeowner found him, grabbed him by the arm and brought him outside to awaiting deputies. Howard was sentenced to 30 days jail and six months probation for breaking and entering without the owner’s permission.
• July 23-27: Christopher Frohner, 19, shot out his neighbor’s windows with a BB gun, then returned later and broke into the Ferris Township cottage. He was sentenced to three years probation, 90 days on an electronic monitoring program, 50 hours of community service and was given credit for 64 days already served in jail.
• July 31: Meranda Rauch, 28, of Belding stole from a house in Fairplain Township. She was sentenced to 45 days jail for larceny.
• July 31: Rodney Franks, 30, and Ronald Slone, 52, both of Cedar Springs, broke into RJ’s Party Store in Howard City and the Pierson Mobil gas station, where they stole alcohol and cigarettes. They were arrested after Michigan State Police troopers tracked down their vehicle. Both pleaded guilty to two counts of breaking and entering. Franks was sentenced to eight months in jail, while Slone was sentenced to from three to 10 years in prison.
• Aug. 3: Sean Oberle, 18, of Owosso, broke into a home in Montcalm Township, then drove away in a stolen 2010 Chevy truck. He was arrested in Shiawassee County and returned to Montcalm County, where he is awaiting sentencing.
• Aug. 17: One 18-year-old and two 16-year-old males from Sheridan and Stanton were arrested for breaking into numerous vehicles in Sheridan and Stanton. Stolen items were recovered, including stereo equipment, a GPS unit, an iPod and compact discs. All three youths allegedly confessed, but are awaiting court hearings.
• Aug. 19: The Michigan State Police Lakeview Post released the sketch of a man suspected of breaking and entering a Richland Township home. The man was found in a garage by the home’s resident. The suspect is a white male with blackish-brown hair in his early to mid-20s, about 6 feet in height and muscular, weighing 180 to 190 pounds. He was last seen wearing a green baseball cap and at least one earring in his left ear. He has a chipped front-left central incisor. He is believed to have been arrested for similar crimes in another county, but he has not yet been charged in Montcalm County.
• Aug. 20: A 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy, both from Sheridan, allegedly broke into Klinkers Korners at M-57 and M-66. Deputies located the boys about a mile away and recovered stolen property, burglary tools and a weapon. The boys allegedly confessed, but are awaiting a trial in Juvenile Court.
• Aug. 23: Levi Bush, 27, of Sheridan, and John Hiatt, 28, of Greenville, were arrested after being caught trying to steal scrap metal from the old Carnation Building in downtown Sheridan. Both men are awaiting sentencing.
• Aug. 28: Ryan Bell, 25, and Robert Hulbert, 22, both of Howard City, were allegedly caught in the act of stealing duct work, shelving and scrap metal outside a Coral business. The owner called the police and told the two men to return, which they did. Bell is awaiting trial. Hulbert was sentenced to one day in jail and three months probation for larceny.
Unknown date: Timothy Childers, 31, of Grand Blanc, was arrested in Shiawassee County and charged with breaking and entering/home invasion and receiving and concealing stolen property. He is being investigated for similar crimes in Montcalm County.
Unknown date: Jerry Welder Jr., 24, of Shepherd was arrested in Isabella County and charged with operating under the influence of drugs, operating under the influence of drugs while transporting children, aggravated assault of a police officer, possessing marijuana with intent to deliver, furnishing false information to a police officer, no vehicle insurance, improper registration on a vehicle and two counts of driving on a suspended license. He is being investigated for break-ins and larceny crimes in Montcalm County.
Crime wave tally
Area police agencies were busy handling complaints of larcenies and break-ins this summer. Here is the tally of the complaints for June through August:
• Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office — 60 breaking and entering complaints, resulting in several arrests.
• Michigan State Police Lakeview Post — 40 breaking and entering complaints at 27 residences, six businesses and seven barns, garages or construction sites; 38 larcenies in seven residences, seven vehicles, one park-and-ride lot, five businesses, two cemeteries and a church. Several people in six groups were arrested.
• Belding Police Department — 36 larcenies and 10 break-ins, resulting in five arrests.
• Greenville Department of Public Safety — 44 burglaries and larcenies. Six were related and resulted in the arrests of local juveniles.
• Lakeview Police Department — six larcenies and one attempted break-in. Police Chief Darin Dood said he has no suspects or leads.
• The Howard City Police Department — 18 break-ins and larcenies. Police Chief Steve DeWitt said three suspects have been identified.

Charges leveled at people arrested for stealing vary based on circumstances of each case. These are the most common charges:
• Larceny less than $1,000 is a misdemeanor.
• Larceny in a building is a felony sought when the defendant had the right to be in the building, but not the right to steal.
• Breaking and entering a building means the suspect had no right to be in the building or to steal.

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