Nearly 5,500 residential burglaries were reported last year in the city.
STEVE O’BRIEN-SUNDGREN was confused.
Though he looked in all the usual places at his home in Maple Leaf, he couldn’t find his cellphone anywhere.
He called to his wife, who was upstairs, sleeping. She hadn’t touched it. Pressed for time, he gave up the search and walked out to the driveway to head to work. A minute later, he was back inside.
“The car’s gone.”
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His wife, Timothie, came down in her pajamas to call the insurance company while Steve left for work. She noticed the front door slightly ajar. Her husband probably had forgotten to close it when he fetched the paper earlier, she thought.
She went to retrieve her purse for the car-insurance information. Now, where had she put it?
And so it began for the couple that rainy February morning: a slow dawning that while they slept upstairs, someone crept through their house, sliding open drawers, picking through closets, stealing whatever he wanted.
They didn’t know it at the time, but their unsettling experience put them in one of the least exclusive clubs in the city: people whose homes have been burglarized, many by the same suspects. Thousands are victimized each year, coming home or waking up to discover that memories and heirlooms have been snatched, along with their sense of security.
We’re a city of victims — so much so that, by this time tomorrow, there’s a good chance the occupants of 15 more homes in Seattle will be standing in the couple’s shoes.
The full accounting of their losses took days: A jacket. A laptop. Timothie’s purse. An address book that looked like a large wallet. Credit cards. Their 2009 Ford Taurus.
Timothie traces the path she imagines the burglar walked that night: down a hallway; past the stairway leading to their bedroom; into the bathroom and the farthest reaches of the house, where their computer was stolen. Doubling back into the dining room, into the kitchen, where, having already nabbed the spare car keys from a drawer, the burglar left Timothie’s main key ring in plain sight on the counter.
It occurred to her that morning that someone might still be in the house. She called police, then waited in the narrow hallway near the front door for them to arrive.
A thorough check of the house showed the burglar already had cleared out. But a part of him lives on in the new alarms the couple bought; in the way they ritually lock up their house; and in the louder voice Steve uses now to announce his arrival home, lest he startle his wife.
THE THIEF WAS caught sitting in a stolen car by Seattle Police a month later, after pocketing $165 from a pawnshop for items he had stolen from another house. Steve and Timothie’s car was returned to them two weeks after it was stolen, its back seat so fouled with watermelon juice and rind that everything had to be replaced. Its roof was dented, as if someone had used it as a launchpad.
Now, more than four years later, Timothie lays eyes on the face of Maxfield Paris Dare, the young felon who had Timothie’s head spinning that morning in 2012. It’s the first time she’s glimpsed the stranger who was in her house. He’s on Facebook, with 688 friends, in an account maintained by his father. Except for the razor wire in the background, he looks as if he could be hanging with them in Seattle.
Steve studies the Facebook photo of the brawny 23-year-old, who was 18 when he crept through their house.
“He looks like the boys that our boys would bring home,’’ he says.
At Dare’s trial, the prosecutor tallied his criminal history as a juvenile and as an adult: 24 felonies, 18 of them burglaries. She also reminded the court that only months after being released from juvenile detention, Dare was back burglarizing homes and stealing cars with his buddies. One of his accomplices told police they preferred Seattle’s North End.
Dare’s father, Michael Dare, says his son fell in with the wrong crowd and began using drugs after they moved to Seattle around 2007. According to his father, the teen had spent an uneventful childhood roaming in the California desert, far from civilization. But they were evicted when Max was 12, and bounced around for a few years before landing in Seattle. While his dad worked two jobs, the teenager took to drinking and drugs with his friends, the elder Dare told a King County Superior Court judge.
Max Dare was 15 when the family became homeless again. He moved in with a friend’s family, dropped out of Ballard High School, and began stealing and joy riding in stolen cars with his friends, his dad told the judge.
One of Dare’s accomplices told police he and Dare would case a neighborhood, waiting for people to turn off their televisions and lights and head to bed. They’d walk around, checking for unlocked doors; usually about one out of every dozen homes had a back or sliding door they could slip through, according to police investigative reports. Once they’d taken what they wanted from the house, they’d steal the car so they wouldn’t have to walk, the reports said.
A block watch captain in Wedgwood, where several homes were burglarized, says the crime spree unnerved the community. Victims asked, “What if?” What if Dare had come into their bedrooms? Or their children’s? What if they had confronted him?
Catching Dare took hundreds of hours of police work, including overtime, specialized units and “entire precincts on alert around the clock,’’ one Seattle Police detective told the judge.
When Dare was caught, along with his accomplices, it was largely due to a website and surveillance video from the pawnshop in Lake City that showed Dare selling off items that matched the description of those stolen days earlier, according to court records.
He’s now serving 10 years in prison, scheduled for possible release when he’s 25.
One crime spree was shut down. But it would hardly be the last.
In fact, aside from the harsh sentence, the most remarkable thing about the Dare case is how unremarkable it is.
LAST YEAR, NEARLY 5,500 homes — an average of 15 a day — were burglarized in Seattle. The city logged more than 7,500 total burglaries. Only 456 people were arrested for those crimes, and the Seattle Police Department’s clearance rate is a depressing 6.6 percent, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Lt. Mike Magee, a detective with the SPD’s major crimes division, says a small number of people is responsible for the lion’s share of burglaries.
That much was evident during a recent visit to Courtroom 1 at King County Jail, where suspects are brought in so a judge can determine whether there is probable cause they committed the crimes for which they have been arrested.
Of the 22 suspects who appeared, 13 had been arrested for theft, most of them burglaries. And more than half of those had previous convictions for theft.
“This is pretty typical,’’ says Courtney Wimer of All City Bail Bonds in Seattle, who regularly attends the hearings.
Magee says, “Over 90 percent of the people we deal with have an addiction issue. Most don’t have drugs on them when they’re arrested; they’re out stealing to support a habit.”
Burglary is a citywide problem, but it’s particularly bad in the North End: In February, Seattle Police formed a special task force to get a handle on it.
During a recent debriefing on the task force’s work, an assistant chief in attendance described how the arrest of a single person in the North End led to a drop in crime: “Since last week,’’ he told the assembled gathering of about 65, “there’s been no property crimes in one area.”
It’s one thing to catch them, and another to keep track of them.
Magee says it’s common for suspects to resume stealing after they’re released until their next court appearance. One man, Magee says, committed three burglaries and a car prowl between the first and second reading of charges.
Police use mapping and data analysis to identify patterns, and focus on particularly hard-hit areas and possible repeat offenders. When they arrest a suspect, they work backward to see whether they can link them to other unsolved burglaries.
Some suspects are helpful, and will take police on a tour of the homes they hit up.
Sometimes, police get lucky. In June, a major burglary and theft ring was broken up when a stolen car was returned to the owner. Left inside it was a letter from a jail inmate addressed to a South Seattle resident. Police went to the address on the letter, and found more than 300 stolen items inside.
Others, such as the Dare case, require intense police and court resources to prosecute. In those cases, King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney Mafé Rajul encourages victims to attend proceedings to remind judges that property crimes have a human toll beyond lost stuff.
“Your home is a place where you’re supposed to be safe,’’ Rajul says. “It’s your sanctuary; it’s the place where you can be at peace and at ease. And when somebody violates that sanctuary, especially if you are in it, it is very traumatic.”
Dare says he was homeless, impoverished and alone when he started burglarizing homes. “Do you know how hard it is living in poverty in a major city as a teenager?’’ he wrote in an email from prison. “Going to school with the same clothes as the year before, not being able to do some of the activities other kids are doing? … I had to support myself to live, and I wanted to have a normal teenage life.”
Dare’s attorney told a judge that the teen stole to support a drug habit. The prosecutor, however, described him as a criminal who liked to do drugs.
The distinction hardly mattered to Dare’s victims, including a little girl who discovered the burglary when she woke up, and kept asking her parents why someone wanted to steal their stuff.
In recent years, victims and police have used apps and websites such as Leadsonline to track lost or stolen goods. Some victims have taken to social media, posting video captured by surveillance cameras, to help identify suspects.
Police and prosecutors say they don’t have any statistics on the number of cases that have been solved or aided by home surveillance.
But as one Seattle woman found, technology can allow for a different kind of justice.
TWO OF SARA MAE BRERETON’S teenage daughters were downstairs at 701 Coffee, the family’s coffee shop and vegan cafe on a busy corner in the Central District, when someone sneaked into their 150-square-foot apartment upstairs and stole their iPad, laptop and piggy banks containing about $60.
The girls didn’t realize what happened until their mom came home. Initially, Brereton thought the kids were playing a joke. But then she reviewed the surveillance camera she had installed on a whim at the shop two months earlier.
At 4:25 p.m., a man wearing ripped black skinny jeans, a long maroon scarf, a messenger bag and a dark hoodie looks around, and disappears up the stairway to the apartment. Two and half minutes later, he’s back on the street, carrying what looks like a piggy bank. He lingers a bit down the street, then returns to peer through the doorway and reach inside for whatever was left on the stairs.
One daughter recognized him as a customer who had come in a few times with his friends, Brereton says.
“When I saw the video, I was upset,’’ she says. “Why would he do this?”
Within two hours, Brereton posted a video and photos of the young man on social media, offering gift cards as a reward to anyone who could identify him. She reported the theft to police, but said in her post that she would not press charges if he personally returned the items.
“It blew up,’’ she says. “It got about 10,000 views, and 110 shares” on Facebook. People started messaging her. “That’s my ex-boyfriend,’’ said one. Others said he looked like a guy who had been casing their house before it was burglarized that same week.
At 10 a.m. the next day, the 18-year-old on the video walked into the shop with his father. He had the laptop, the iPad, $20 and a look of mortification on his face, Brereton says.
“We sat right over there and talked for two hours,’’ she says, pointing to a square wooden table in the corner that became his confessional.
“I thanked him for bringing it back, and asked, ‘Do you accept responsibility for your actions?’ ” she says. “He said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Customers came and went. Her daughters watched from afar as the teen cried and told her of his compulsion to steal, she says. The family was well off. He didn’t need the money.
“I told him, ‘You went into our apartment. You can see we don’t have anything. We don’t even have space!’ ”
He’d been doing it for years, she says, and told her he couldn’t stop, even though it made him hate himself even more.
Brereton, 38, says she understood. She has a tendency to fixate on things, and until about four years ago, it caused chaos in her life, she says. She told him to view his ability to fixate as a superpower that could be turned to good things.
But what to do from there?
“I told him, ‘One of my concerns is I don’t press charges and end up enabling your behavior, and you climb through somebody’s window one of these days because you can’t help yourself — or whatever is going on with you — and you get shot. I don’t want to be a part of enabling you to injure yourself more than you already have.’ ”
She said she’d wait to hear from the teen’s father on whether he thought pressing charges would help keep his son safe and accountable.
Weeks later, she hadn’t heard from either man. But she did hear from a conservative radio host, who took her to task for letting the teen off easy.
“One of the problems in our society is that we have way too much justice and not enough compassion,’’ Brereton says. “What does justice look like? I’m the one that was stolen from, and I’m saying, ‘Hey, let’s take a minute to talk about how we treat people.’ I wasn’t pissed off. I was shocked. I was standing in his shoes and wondering, ‘Why is he doing this?’ ”
Brereton says she’s not sure how she would feel had she not been able to put a face to the burglary.
“Having a face to that definitely allowed for some degree of processing,’’ Brereton says. “And then when they came in here, I thought it was a wonderful moment to share with someone. His encroachment on my space was personal, but it’s not like he was saying, ‘I’m going to encroach on Sara Mae’s space and make her uncomfortable.’ That’s different, and it would have brought out a difference response. I didn’t feel like it was a personal attack on me.”
When the teen and his dad left the shop that day, she hugged them, and gave the father a Zip drive containing the footage of his son.
“Go up on the hill (to the police station) and turn yourself in,” she told the teen. “It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I’ll give you the footage and you can take it in. Tell ’em what you did, and we’ll go from there.”
Later that day, a friend texted her: “I just saw the kid going into the police station with his dad.”
Will he be prosecuted? Will it help? Brereton is still waiting to find out.