A $20 tracking device, a fake rubber gun, and a small canvas handbag — this is all it took to apprehend one suspected gun thief in an area of West Ashley where car break-ins are on the rise.
On the morning of Sept. 20, around 7:11 a.m., officers with the Charleston Police Department received a notification that one of the department's bait trackers had been activated. The device, planted inside a blue handbag along with a rubber training firearm that resembled a Glock handgun, had been sitting in an unlocked car on Anita Drive near the Avondale area. Following an increase in vehicle break-ins in the area, the trap had been set the night before, according to an incident report filed by the department. It took less than 12 hours for someone to take the bait.
Following the signal from the GPS tracker, police found a 63-year-old man with a medium build and scruffy facial hair standing in a carport less than 400 yards away from where the device had been planted. According to an incident report, the man told officers that he had ridden his bike to the store to buy a beer. The resident of the home allowed officers to search her backyard. There, they noticed a path cut through the morning dew, indicating that someone had recently walked across the back of the property.
At the end of that path, police located the blue firearm bag tossed on the ground. The bag had been cut open, and the GPS tracker and fake Glock were located in a nearby drainage ditch at the edge of the property. Due to the lack of anyone else in the vicinity and his location to the scene of the attempted theft, the man was charged with breaking and entering a vehicle and receiving stolen property. Had the handgun been real, it would be counted among the more than 110 firearms reported stolen in the city of Charleston so far this year — approximately half of which came from unlocked vehicles. And Shelor says the number of stolen firearms across the city has continued to rise year over year.
"It's cyclical and it moves around," Sgt. Trevor Shelor, crime prevention specialist with the Charleston Police Department, says of the rash of break-ins that affect pockets of the city.
Around the beginning of the year, most of this criminal activity in West Ashley was found in the DuWap area. Then it shifted down Savannah Highway to the Carolina Bay area. The most recent increase in break-ins then moved to the Avondale area. While this covers West Ashley, these spikes in break-ins tend to bounce all around the Lowcountry, according to Shelor. In the past 15 years, as most automobiles have transitioned away from manual locks and more and more cars come equipped with alarms, Shelor says he has witnessed the shift of a majority of break-ins away from apartment complexes, which offers an abundance of vehicles lined up in a small area, to more traditional neighborhoods away from the city's center. West Ashley offers the added appeal to criminals by being easier to enter and exit in a speedy fashion rather than be hemmed in along downtown streets.
Combining the approximately 110 firearms reported stolen in Charleston since the start of the year with the City Paper's own count of gun thefts, more than 160 firearms have been reported stolen over the past 12 months. This total began with the report of a Glock 9mm taken from an unlocked car outside of a motel on Sept. 24, 2016. While almost identical to the rubber Glock that was pulled from the car in West Ashley almost a year later, the major difference is that this theft added another deadly weapon to the streets.
According to Sgt. Shelor, one problem associated with clamping down on stolen firearms is the reluctance of some gun owners to report thefts. Whether they don't have the time to wait on crime scene investigators or are worried that police will scold them for leaving their vehicles unsecured, this all leads to unreported thefts, which in turn makes it more difficult to gather significant evidence and justify assigning additional resources to monitor the area.
While more guns in the hands of criminals is obviously an issue, the abundance of easily accessible weapons from unlocked vehicles has also had another effect on communities. In June, following a home break-in and sexual assault on Chadwick Drive in West Ashley, then-Police Chief Greg Mullen warned residents that criminals were targeting traditionally lower-crime neighborhoods to carry out thefts involving unlocked vehicles and homes. According to Sgt. Shelor, people cannot allow themselves to grow complacent if they hope to keep violent crime from spreading into their neighborhoods.
"It's all opportunistic, so criminals take whatever chance they can find. They may be there to get into cars, but then they see a bicycle laying around, so they take that. Or they came to break into cars, but they steal a weed eater because they found a shed unlocked. Or one of them takes a chance and turns a doorhandle and next thing you know they're in your kitchen just because they were there to break into cars," he says. "Some criminals specialize and some will take anything that's not nailed down. They'll try anything, turn any handle, pull any door."
Shelor, who can be contacted to provide safety presentations to neighborhood groups, recommends developing a "double check-in" routine that involves common-sense measures like making sure your car doors are secured before going to bed and removing all valuable items from your vehicle when you get home. From a neighborhood perspective, security efforts can involve trimming shrubs to reduce shadows and hiding places, being aware of your neighbors' normal routines, and being familiar enough to contact the person next door if something seems abnormal.
"You don't have to live paranoid. It's just having good habits. And then you'll never know what you have prevented," says Shelor.
As for the number of guns flooding the streets, a state-by-state analysis of FBI data by the Center for American Progress found that an estimated 44,057 firearms were stolen from individual gun owners in South Carolina between 2012-2015. That's roughly one gun falling into the hands of a criminal for every 111 people in the state. With Charleston County holding the top spot in the state for gun homicides in 2015 paired with the abundance of stolen firearms being pulled from unlocked vehicles, there arises at least one simple way to reduce the amount of weapons that make their way into the hands of criminals.
"It's more than that gun being a valuable item. It's a matter of that gun being a violent item," Shelor says, adding, "That's where we need people to realize how much responsibility comes with owning and securing a gun. What happens when the wrong person gets a hold of that gun?"