In order to better assist the public, and in response to numerous complaints of break ins throughout the Mountain Area, the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce has announced a Town Hall Crime in the Mountains: Safety & Awareness meeting will be held 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, July 8, at the Oakhurst Community Center.
The meeting comes after several Mountain Area businesses and residents have expressed continued concern over what they are calling a recent series of break-ins to hit the Mountain Area.
Local shop owners says they are tired of being victimized and would like help from the sheriff's office as to what they can do to better protect themselves from potential burglaries.
According to Victor Weitzel, owner of Idea Print Work Inc. of Ahwahnee, in early May a 1968 Ford Mustang was taken from his shop and just a few weeks later during memorial day weekend thieves struck again, this time taking tools and other valuable items.
Weitzel said he has since beefed up his security adding a more efficient alarm system, cameras and converted his storage yard into what he says resembles a prison yard.
Weitzel, who has already made an appearance at a Rotary meeting to get the word out, plans on attending July's Town Hall meeting to help educate the community and says the break-ins are not limited to just this area.
"It makes me feel extremely violated and overly cautious, very suspicious and it created me looking into things in our town and was completely floored at how much theft there is in our area," Weitzel said. "Now I'm finding out it's not only here in Oakhurst, but it's in North Fork, Mariposa County, and Bass Lake. It's pretty extreme."
Although Weitzel has taken necessary precautions to protect from a repeat offense, he fears that as more and more business use the necessary means to deter criminals from their workplace they may be forcing them into residential areas.
"If businesses start securing themselves this might force these people into residential areas and that can get really dangerous," Weitzel said. "We can strengthen our business security but what does that do for the residents?"
Businesses are not the only ones experiencing a recent increase in burglaries. Oakhurst resident Ted Demont says he was the victim of a break-in just a few days ago when thieves broke into his homes and stole cell phone chargers, jewelry and other miscellaneous items.
Demont, along with other community members, feel the frustration of the Mountain Area but does not blame the Sheriffs Office. Rather, Demont is associating the counties fiscal problems as to the main reason why these crimes have increased.
"The problem is not at the sheriff's level. They have been doing their job for so long and seeing no results that they're becoming frustrated too. I believe it is a problem at the fiscal level. The district attorney is not prosecuting the crimes unless there is an injury or violent crime. The Sheriff's Department arrests these guys and then they are released because the jail is full," Demont said.
Although the deputy who took the report recommended that Demont get his concealed weapons permit, Demont does not believe that arming the public with weapons is the best way to deal with this issue and can lead to violence.
"It was recommended to me that I get a concealed weapons permit, but I don't believe that arming the citizens is the answer," Demont said.
Instead, in order to combat the situation and as a way take the matters into their own hands, Demont and Oakhurst resident Janice Guthrie have coordinated with Community Service Officer Joann Evans from the sheriff's office to create a neighborhood watch program.
"We want to help people to be aware and watch for this type of crime. We are going to put up signs in the area and we are hoping this will make difference now that they know we are united and we will be reporting things," Guthrie said. "We know the sheriff's office is understaffed and over worked with a large area to patrol. That's why we need to take it into our own hands."
Guthrie says all but two of the houses in her neighborhood have experienced some sort of burglary in the past few months and hopes by forming an alliance they can send a message to the perpetrators that they will not stand for this type of behavior.
Some residents, including Guthrie, believe the suspects are traveling on foot since no large assets have been taken. Rather the intruders seem to be taking concealable items such as jewelry, phones and small valuables.
In a completely separate incident, but one that seems alarming to the general public, Oakhurst native Kent Tracy had three motorcycles and a trailer stolen Saturday in broad daylight outside the Met Cinema.
Tracy says he parked his truck, which was attached to the trailer, in front of the movie theater in hopes of enticing someone to buy the motorcycles which he recently put for sale. Instead, later that day on his way to Coarsegold, to the surprise of Tracy, his truck was there but the trailer and bikes were missing.
Tracy said after doing some of his own investigative work and notifying the CHP of possible suspects he was able to locate the bikes and through diligent work authorities were able to apprehend the suspects.
Several Mountain Area citizen have speculated on what is causing the supposed break-ins, pointing to drug users and vagrants as the main culprits.
The truth is, the sheriff's office nor anyone else is aware of who is committing these crimes.
Undersheriff Michael Salvador, who plans to head the Town Hall meeting, advises members of the community to do their part to discourage thieves from targeting their homes.
"Make sure your landscaping is properly trimmed. Try to avoid regular patterns to the best of your ability, know you neighbors and if you see something out of place, make the call," Salvador said. "It is better to role in and see someone that was supposed to be there rather than miss the burglary," Salvador said.
The sheriff's office has reported five more burglaries to date compared to this time last year, but Salvador says it is important that the community feels safe and knows that the sheriff's office is doing its best to protect the community.
"We have only had five more burglaries compared to last year, that is not unusual. That is not a huge increase," Salvador said.
Although the sheriff's office reports contradicts the notion of a substantial increase in break-ins, Salvador says he is not taking the accusations lightly.
Salvador has agreed to meet with the community during a Women in Business luncheon from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursday, July 10, at the Oakhurst Library, and the Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, July 8.
"I plan to discuss a lot of different things about crime prevention, but we are also going to give a block on how to call the police. How to do it from a cell phone, how do to do it from a land line and what kind of information we are looking for. It would be beneficial to know what the dispatchers is going to ask you before they ask you," Salvador said.
Both meetings, established by the chamber, are open to the public and will be used as forum to get the community engaged in a discussion about several recent incidents, provide safety tips and help educate homeowner and business owners on how to properly protect their assets and families.
Salvador says the key to solving these crimes and limiting the damage caused by burglaries is to maintain an open line between the community and the sheriff's office and continue documenting all instances.
"We are out there trying our best to ensure the safety of the public, the sheriff's department is dedicated to ensure your safety and together as a team we can make this community safer. I can't put a deputy on every corner so it is a team effort. Don't be afraid to call us, no crime is too small," Salvador said.
Executive Director of the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce Darin Soukup, says he hopes by the chamber organizing these meeting the community can unite together and influence a change.
"The Chamber shares the concerns of our community about any crime in our Mountain Area. Several of our business members have been directly impacted by recent incidents and many more of our members want to be empowered to make a difference through safety and awareness," Soukup said. "The Town Hall, "Crime in the Mountains: Safety & Awareness" and the Women in Business Luncheon are really only the first step in promoting safety and awareness."
Soukup says a key factor would be to organize a neighborhood watch program throughout the Mountain Area to help combat the increase in crime.
"The chamber is interested in coordinating with the Madera County Sheriff's Department and local businesses in establishing business neighborhood watch programs in each of our retail and commercial centers," Soukup said.