'Stop Valley Thieves' puts neighborhood watch on Facebook

zhollander@adn.comOctober 5, 2013 

Stop Valley Thieves facebook page.

WASILLA -- A four-wheeler stolen from a Meadow Lakes yard in broad daylight. A woman caught on camera rifling through a boat in Houston with a gun stuck down the back of her pants.

Not one but three separate attempts to steal an alpaca in Wasilla.

Time for a new kind of neighborhood watch.

A popular Facebook group called "Stop Valley Thieves" now gives hundreds of fed-up Mat-Su Borough residents a place to post pictures of stolen stuff or warnings about suspicious strangers casing neighborhood yards.

The group started in late July, grew to 700 members within two months and last week was up to 840.

"These social media deals, it really gets the word out," said Dan Wade, an Alaska Waste garbage truck driver who used the group to find a friend's stolen four-wheeler this month.

The Valley's isolated subdivisions and spacious lots make it a haven for more thefts and burglaries than anywhere else in Alaska, according to the most recent statewide statistics.

At Alaska State Troopers posts in Palmer and near Wasilla, there's just one trooper for every 2,400 residents -- far more residents per trooper than any other region of the state.

The patrol troopers who respond to theft and burglary calls don't have the time or manpower to solve every missing dirt bike and stolen puppy case.

"That's the biggest complaint I hear from anybody is that the troopers showed up and it was kind of like, well, if we hear anything we'll let you know," said Vicki Wallner, the Palmer-area resident who started the group. "Lots of times if it gets recovered, it gets recovered through people."

Wallner is married to a trooper. She said she's not busting on the agency. She just wants to give Mat-Su residents the power to help themselves until the troopers can pay more attention to property crimes.



EYE-OPENING

Wallner is a semi-retired small business owner who ran a lawn and garden company. She started the group after a friend turned to Facebook this summer to post a picture of a pickup driving around doing "stop and grabs" -- picking up gas cans or anything else left unattended.

Somebody chased the truck and got the license plate. Stolen. The pickup showed up "all over the Valley," Wallner said. Yet nobody knew about it unless they stumbled across her friend's personal Facebook page.

"I thought, this is crazy," she said. "This person is driving around with another person, they're grabbing stuff out of peoples' yards, we've got a couple descriptions of the truck and yet we can't do anything."

Wallner started the group to widen the scope of property crime reports. She had no idea so many people would join. Or how much crime was going on.

"That's been a real eye-opener for me," she said.

Items listed with the group run the gamut from a stolen garbage can up Knik-Goose Bay Road to a Buffalo Mine Road resident who estimated the value of his stolen items as "pushing close to $50,000."

Several people spotted a photo of the young woman scoping the boat in Houston and identified her.

And then there was this item from a birch-forested neighborhood on the west side of Wasilla: "reported attempt to steal an alpaca. Heard from our neighbor that Thursday evening, 8 pm or so on 9/26, people tried to steal their alpaca. They had gone into barn, taken it out, tied it along the street, and then another neighbor saw what was going on and they took off, alpaca is fine. Neighbors saw what looked like a white pickup truck and blue hatchback car leaving the scene."



WHEN IT WORKS

The group -- and another one like it called Kenai Peninsula Crime -- serves several purposes.

The posted alerts about suspicious people or vehicles keep homeowners on guard and provide specifics to keep an eye out for: descriptions of suspicious vehicles and people, times and types of thefts reported, and items stolen.

The group also encourages people to include pictures of stolen items in hopes that somebody might spot the stuff out there and help recover it.

So far, information posted on the site has led to the recovery of several items, including a child's snowmachine.

The group worked wonders for a Wasilla-area property owner off Pittman Road with a stolen four-wheeler worth $3,500. The owner didn't even get a chance to ride it before it disappeared off his lawn, said his buddy Wade, who lives about two miles away.

"It's definitely going on a lot around here," he said. "He's actually been stolen from before in that yard. They recovered the motorcycles and stuff. That time it was neighborhood kids. This time, who knows?"

The owner last week told Wallner he'd located the four-wheeler. She said the family offered a reward for help finding it.

The tip came through Facebook, she said.

"We as citizens have to be more proactive," Wallner wrote in an email on Friday. "There will never be enough troopers to keep us free from crime. We have to be eyes and ears for ourselves, our neighbors and law enforcement. Several people have been thanking me lately but I tell them they are the power, I'm just the mouthpiece."



LURKERS

The group isn't without growing pains.

At least a few Valley thieves are lurking on the site.

A Wasilla-area resident posted information about two people walking through yards. One carried a slingshot. They told residents they were hunting ptarmigan. Not likely, the Facebook poster figured. She put up a description of the pair.

The next day, one of them showed up on her doorstep, unarmed. He didn't make any threats but confronted the woman about her post. The whole experience left the woman and her husband on high alert.

Wallner removed the original post. She also suggested members can post anonymously by sending her a private message with their information. But the incident prompted a discussion about making Stop Valley Thieves a closed Facebook group. A closed group allows nonmembers to see who's in the group but not what members post.

Wallner gave the group a chance to vote: close the group or keep it open? Right now, keeping it open -- "wiiiiiidddddddeeeeeee open" as one member put it -- is winning.

Wallner said she'll close it without further discussion if someone reports another run-in with a suspected troublemaker. Meanwhile she warns people to be judicious about what they post online.

"If we've got thieves monitoring it then obviously we got their attention," she said. "They need to be looking over their shoulder just like the rest of us do."



'LOCKED & LOADED'

Another concern Wallner says she polices closely is the potential for vigilante-minded residents reading posts at Stop Valley Thieves to take matters into their own hands.

Wallner said she monitors the site and "tries to keep the vigilantes out." Still, some comments point in that general direction.

"Joe Biden suggested shotguns. They're cheap," reads one recent comment.

"What a great message to any thief reading these posts. Yes we will shoot you. Not waiting . . . shooting! I don't think we will need to call an ambulance!" another person added.

Someone else points out it's easy to look up a home address if someone uses their name when they post.

"Yes, even if you don't own property, data is easily collected. Therefore neighbors, I would suggest being vigilant. ... I prefer to also be "locked & loaded," the next comment reads.



MISSING UMBRELLA

One of the biggest complaints Wallner hears is that even if a trooper does respond to a call, there's no compilation of property crimes reports, so trends go unnoticed.

Until a few months ago, two investigators worked a property-crimes unit at the Palmer post, headquarters for an area that spans more than 53,400 square miles of land and more than 103,000 residents.

The positions fell under the jurisdiction of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, which looks into major criminal activity such as murder and sexual assaults but also property crimes -- provided there is a larger pattern like a rash of break-ins in one neighborhood or the same thief stealing TVs and guns from numerous homes.

Two dedicated troopers compiled statistics from patrol troopers, according to Sgt. Mike Burkmire, the former supervisor of the unit. Then they'd look for trends or patterns.

The investigators also mined local pawn stores for stolen goods, then worked backward to try to find the thieves, Burkmire said.

But the unit never targeted one-time thefts like the four-wheeler stolen out of a yard one week and a trailer out of another part of the Valley the next, he said, "unless we had a pattern of four-wheelers being stolen in a week or a month or a particular neighborhood."

A few months ago, the property crimes investigators took other assignments and their positions got transferred over Palmer's patrol division.

Wallner said she hopes the troopers will reinstate a lower-level property crime unit that operated in the Mat-Su some years back, and did pay attention to small thefts.

"That's the unit we would like to come back. When it was absorbed into ABI ... it became more of a high-dollar unit," she said in an email Friday. "As the statistics show the only property crime ABI investigated last year were 9 robberies statewide."



MORE TROOPERS COMING

Patrol troopers prioritize their response to calls depending on how many troopers are on duty, what crimes are already in progress and where the reports are coming from, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said. And the Valley has a lot of ground to cover.

"Sometimes logistics comes into play," Peters said. "The reality is, people crimes are first and property crimes are secondary. There's a lot to consider when you look at it."

Troopers have noticed lately that a lot of property crime reports involve unlocked vehicles, sheds or homes, she said, urging Mat-Su residents to lock up property and valuables to prevent "some crimes of opportunity from occurring."

That said, the trooper-to-resident ratio could be improving in the Valley.

Five new recruits joined the Mat-Su West post this year, though they are riding with other troopers until they finish their training and can patrol on their own. Troopers are also considering adding two more patrol positions in Palmer, but that hasn't been finalized.

Wallner's husband, Sgt. Leonard Wallner, is the statewide training coordinator for the troopers' village public safety program. She said she hopes Stop Valley Thieves members can coordinate with the Mat-Su troopers rather than cast blame.

"I hate to see anger directed at these guys," she said. "I think we should really improve relationships because the property crime is so high out here. It's only going to get worse as long as there's not something done to stem the flow."


Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 

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