Theft connects addiction to foreclosure crisis; prompts calls for better maintenance

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – When Charles J. Robinson was arrested in early June by the Egg Harbor Township Police Department for allegedly targeting and burglarizing up to 80 vacant homes throughout Atlantic County, the arrest came as no shock to law enforcement in this region.

But the conclusion of the three-month investigation made clear a trend they have been witnessing: the foreclosure crisis has met the rising heroin and opiate epidemic in South Jersey, and this union is creating the perfect storm of challenges for the community.

“Atlantic County’s foreclosure rate is four times the national average, so we are prime for the picking. Then you pair that with the heroin epidemic, and it compounds the issue,” said Detective Capt. Chris Ruef of the Egg Harbor Township Police Department.

“It’s like when you have a warm front and a cold front meet. There is a storm. It shows you the extremes that people are going to in paying for their heroin addictions. It’s taking a toll on the economy and on law enforcement.”

On the day of the arrest, Robinson, an Egg Harbor Township resident, was charged with possession of heroin and theft. According to police, he admitted to about 40 copper thefts from vacant homes in Galloway, Absecon, Egg Harbor City, Egg Harbor Township, Northfield, Hamilton Township and Linwood, but is suspected in up to 40 additional burglaries.

According to Detective Robert Harte, Robinson admitted that he used the real estate website Zillow to locate homes under foreclosure prior to committing the burglaries between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. He then allegedly sold more than 2,500 pounds of copper and brass at local scrap yards for a fraction of their value.

Police allege this scheme was designed for the sole purpose of fueling his heroin addiction, something that they see many addicts doing lately.

“This suspect was not the only one doing it,” said Ruef. “He was just the most prolific. He was at it for months. For a few dollars, they are creating thousands of dollars in damage to these homes. They are creating a larger financial strain. It’s just one of the symptoms of this epidemic not just here, but in all of Atlantic County. This was not the first time. It’s a continuing trend.”

According to the website RealtyTrac, Atlantic County’s foreclosure filing rate was up by 17 percent in June over the previous month, and was 53 percent higher than in June 2015.

Such properties can spend a long time in limbo according to Jeannine Wescoat, broker at Zona Real Estate in Absecon and president of the Atlantic City and County Board of Realtors.

Wescoat said homes that have the copper and other valuables stripped out become even harder to sell, creating a larger issue for the real estate market.

“The appraisals can be so low that sometimes the only option is for a rehab loan or a cash-only purchase,” she said. “This affects the whole market, the whole community.”

She fears if the trend continues, these already vulnerable properties will devalue even more.

“The bank-owned properties sit there while the litigious process catches up. They sit there unsightly, with no lights on, the blinds broken showing signs of being abandoned,” she said.

It’s a problem that may have a solution that can be found in a basic tenet of modern community policing. Ruef noted the “broken window” theory is a law enforcement principle that applies here.

“The broken window theory explains that if a property or item looks like someone is taking care of them, they are less likely to get vandalized,” Ruef said.

The premise, which was first proposed in the early 1980s and was used extensively in New York City when Rudy Giuliani was mayor, is still promoted by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Service.

A 2009 COPS memo stated that the local implementation of the “broken window” theory can bring positive changes.

Departments should be hiring officers who pay attention to such properties and possess community-building skills, it states. By making “specific efforts to engage communities and increase trust,” such interventions can work in reducing crime.

Ruef advises that in addition to police awareness, property owners should keep their vacant properties well maintained and secured, and neighbors and real estate agents should keep an eye on activity around the homes.

“These addicts are looking for foreclosed homes, so beware,” Ruef said. “You need to be checking up on them and reporting any thefts.”

Wescoat said Realtors will continue to be supportive of stronger laws for maintaining properties.

“If the grass is waist high, we need towns to start billing the banks for the cost of mowing it,” she said. “We need to make these banks more accountable.”

In early 2016, the Atlantic County Improvement Authority created a “zombie foreclosure” registry of homes that have been abandoned by the previous owners while the foreclosure process continues. Under the measure, the county will bill the banks for any costs of maintaining the properties if the county has to complete the work.

Ruef said there is also support to revise the legislation for how scrap yards track sales to make them more comparable to what is mandated of pawn shops. There are several bills that were introduced, but have languished in committee, according to the state Legislature website.

Currently scrap yards are required to keep logs of who is selling the copper and in what quantities, but only some are computerized. Ruef said automating the scrap metal sales would be helpful for detectives who are investigating other thefts.

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