A recent spate of recent construction site burglaries in northern St. Johns County saw nearly $25,000 worth of appliances, air conditioners and air handling units stolen and more than $7,600 worth of damages to newly constructed homes in two different neighborhoods.
The bulk of what was taken came from Palisades at Durbin Crossing where at least 17 homes where broken into, according to St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan.
“This is an entire row of townhomes and no one lives there yet,” Mulligan said on Friday.
Incident reports indicate the homes were likely broken into sometime overnight before the morning of March 14. The perpetrator, or perpetrators, damaged sliding glass doors and screen doors and cut lines to the air conditioners before making off with them.
The next morning, another sheriff’s deputy was called to the gated community of Stone Creek off County Road 21o where, according to incident reports, two other new homes were burglarized with only kitchen appliances being taken.
While the incident at Palisades is one of the larger ones the Sheriff’s Office has seen in quite some time, Mulligan said construction site burglaries are pretty common in the county.
The area’s rapidly growing population and housing boom makes it attractive for would-be burglars, he said.
“There is no question that this a crime of opportunity,” he said. “And I would say that St. Johns County is, unfortunately in this aspect, a target rich environment for them.”
Numbers from the Sheriff’s Office show that construction site burglaries were reported 23 times in 2012. From there it has ticked steadily upward to 82 in 2016. There were 52 reported in 2013 with a spike of 135 in 2014, then 63 in 2015. This year there have already been 21 reported.
Mulligan said the larger incidents, like the one at Palisades, are usually coordinated affairs where a group of people target a neighborhood, waiting for appliances to be delivered.
“They are watching the progress of the construction and they know when they are going to go in,” he said.
They often rent a truck and sometimes set up “counter surveillance” to alert those in the homes if law enforcement is in the area, he added.
The appliances, Mulligan said, often have high resale value, and sometimes they take the air conditioners for the copper inside.
“Or they could be stealing the air conditioner units, loading them in U-Hauls and taking them several states away and selling them,” he said.
Given that the targeted neighborhoods are new, they are often uninhabited so no one is around to report suspicious activity and alert authorities.
That makes it hard to catch people in the act, but occasionally burglary rings do get broken up.
Mulligan said the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office recently arrested members of one family there who were targeting new homes here and in other jurisdictions.
“They were hitting Jacksonville, they were hitting us, they were hitting Clay [County],” he said.
Because of the volume of new construction here, Mulligan said, it is very difficult to have deputies patrolling the vacant, new neighborhoods and subdivisions when they have active calls for service to attend to.
But, he said, the Sheriff’s Office does try to work with the builders to prevent the burglaries from happening as much as possible. Mulligan said he attends a monthly meeting of the Northeast Florida Builders Council to keep in touch, and he, and others in his agency, work to coordinate with the builders so deputies know to watch certain areas when homes are nearing completion and appliances are coming in.
That helps, he said, “but everything is moving so fast that sometimes we miss each other.”