Builders demand burglary relief from Island County sheriff

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown

South Whidbey builders are fed up with property crime, and they let Island County Sheriff Mark Brown know it at a meeting in Freeland Thursday.

More than 35 people crowded into a warehouse at Frontier Building Supply to communicate what they believe is as an epidemic of commercial burglaries, specifically those at construction sites, happening on South Whidbey. And they didn’t hold back punches.

“It was pretty heated for quite a while,” said Sally Paul, manager of Frontier and a member of South Whidbey Homebuilders Association.

“This is an ongoing concern with builders, that job sites are getting hit over and over,” she said.

The gathering was organized by Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who was contacted by members of the building community. Brown attended with several high-ranking officers from his department. The sheriff said the meeting was tense but also informative.

“It was kind of an eye-opening experience,” Brown said.

“It’s costing them a lot of money, and they’re just trying to make a living,” he said.

Contractors and construction workers from Ledgewood south relayed stories of ongoing and occasionally brash burglaries of tools and equipment. Tanner McInerney of Langley-based Weatherside Construction said he had a full-size washer and dryer taken out of a locked house in Clinton that was just a few weeks from completion. Tools, ladders and 15 to 20 moving boxes filled with the homeowners’ belongings were also taken.

“It was pretty devastating,” he said.

Another builder reported a Clinton job site was hit four times, and another cited one in Langley in which several expensive saws were taken.

Many in the room were angry and frustrated by a lack of arrests, particularly since many feel they know who is behind some of the thefts. Brown told The Record he empathized with the builders, particularly those who feel they aren’t getting justice, but said arrests aren’t so easy as they require evidence.

“They know we know who the players are, and are wondering why aren’t we arresting them,” he said. “Obviously, if we could prove that, we’d be making arrests.”

Brown did promise to put a higher priority on property crimes by dedicating additional “manpower resources” toward solving crimes. That includes doing more investigation but also following the crowd’s suggestions for more passive solutions, such as improving communication with the public. The Sheriff’s Office Facebook page will be updated more regularly, and the department will work to better inform the public of how they can prevent being the victims of property crime.

Brown and his officers did some of that at the meeting, suggesting that construction workers take extra care to lock up tools for the night and to even have people sleep at job sites. Paul, of Frontier, worries that doing so could create other problems, as many in the building industry are hunters who are armed.

“Most of these guys pack, and that’s asking for trouble,” Paul said.

“These guys are mad.”

According to Paul, some of the frustration is that most believe the property crime is just a symptom of a greater problem — drug use. It’s a problem on South Whidbey, and everybody knows it, she said.

She did note that Brown seemed legitimately interested in helping. At one point he even gave out his private cell phone number to a woman who complained that she’d called 9-1-1 and never got a call back from police.

“I have to commend him for that one,” she said.

McInerney said losing tools and fixing broken doors is difficult but there’s a psychological effect that’s impacting people as well. He grew up on the South End and it’s hard watching customers go from being excited about moving to the island to questioning their decision.

“As a life-long islander, that’s pretty devastating,” he said.

The Record was not aware of the meeting and only learned of it when Brown called the paper Friday morning. He acknowledged that there has been a rise in burglaries, and that they are disproportionate to South Whidbey. Between Jan. 1 to April 1, the South End saw a total of 26 burglaries — 7 were commercial, 19 residential — compared to a total of 11 on North Whidbey and 17 on Camano Island.

He stopped short, however, of agreeing that it was an “epidemic.”

“If you’ve been hit a couple times, it’s an epidemic to you, and I get that,” he said.

But burglaries and property crime comes in cycles, he said, and he doesn’t believe the current spree will continue indefinitely. Nevertheless, he reiterated that he was committed to working harder to address the burglaries, and making sure the public knows that he’s heard them, loud and clear.

“I felt their pain,” Brown said.