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Rash of Burglaries Spurs Tunbridge Neighborhood Watch

  • Brian Blakeman speaks to his son Kyle on the phone while looking at damage to his son’s truck. The truck was stolen last month and recovered in South Royalton. “The locks only keep an honest person out,” he said. “If they’re gonna get it, they’re gonna get in.”(Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

    Brian Blakeman speaks to his son Kyle on the phone while looking at damage to his son’s truck. The truck was stolen last month and recovered in South Royalton. “The locks only keep an honest person out,” he said. “If they’re gonna get it, they’re gonna get in.”(Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A laptop computer, three jars of change and a single blank check were taken from Bob Sponable’s home in Tunbridge. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

    A laptop computer, three jars of change and a single blank check were taken from Bob Sponable’s home in Tunbridge. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brian Blakeman speaks to his son Kyle on the phone while looking at damage to his son’s truck. The truck was stolen last month and recovered in South Royalton. “The locks only keep an honest person out,” he said. “If they’re gonna get it, they’re gonna get in.”(Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)
  • A laptop computer, three jars of change and a single blank check were taken from Bob Sponable’s home in Tunbridge. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

Like many Tunbridge residents, Bob Sponable used to leave the front doors of his Route 110 home unlocked. That was until September, when he came home and realized that his laptop and three glass containers of coins were missing.

In the last two years, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has received reports of 24 burglaries in Tunbridge. Of those 24 burglaries, only nine were forced entry, meaning that many occurred because people left their doors unlocked or left their keys in their car.

The increased crime rate has caused many neighbors like Sponable to begin locking their doors, and it has encouraged a group of residents to start a neighborhood watch.

“People are locking their cars who never locked their cars. People are locking their front doors who have never locked their front doors,” said Jean Wolfe, the town’s librarian, who has also started locking her car doors for the first time since she moved to Tunbridge 40 years ago.

Tunbridge residents first saw a spike in burglaries during summer 2011, so they organized a community forum the following November at Tunbridge Central School. More than 160 people showed up and discussed the increase in burglaries and suspected drug use among younger residents was the cause.

The message sent by Vermont State Police and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at the forum was that they needed residents’ help. So that’s exactly what residents have set out to do.

The town doesn’t have its own police force and the Vermont State Police only attends to Tunbridge when it receives a call, Town Clerk Wendy McCullough said.

The town allocated $5,000 out of this year’s budget for coverage from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, but the amount of coverage varies each month. In October, the sheriff’s department spent 50 hours patrolling Tunbridge, but in June, the department only spent 10 hours patrolling, McCullough said.

A group of residents has now taken the matter into their own hands, with state Rep. Sarah Buxton helping to organize the watch. Lt. Tracy Simon with the sheriff’s department has suggested a phone tree of sorts where there are watch coordinators and a chain of command.

But Buxton wants to adapt that system to Tunbridge. She still wants to have a chain of command of about 20 to 30 people who would be responsible for sharing information with pockets of the town. She would also like to have people watch over designated areas of their neighborhood and possibly assign each road a captain.

Once the chain of command is established, Buxton would like to use the network to share community information about weather alerts or road problems. And she would like to use email and Facebook to share information.

Buxton plans to talk with residents that have shown interest in being communication captains and hopes to have a draft of the contact network complete by early January. While burglaries continue to occur around town, however, Buxton said she’s cautious of creating extra hype around the issue and blowing it up to something bigger than what exists.

There’s no doubt that burglaries have been occurring. In October, Tunbridge Village Store had a window smashed and items stolen, and the next day, the North Tunbridge General Store had its back door kicked open and cash stolen from its register.

About a month ago, Blakeman’s Towing on Route 110 had a pick-up truck stolen. The vehicle was discovered crashed in a ditch in South Royalton with the truck’s lights left on.

“We don’t want car loads of people chasing each other,” Lt. Simon said. “Neighborhood watch is about being the extra eyes in that community and knowing you can call the police and give them pieces of information that they can use.”

Many of the burglaries have been day-time home burglaries. Perpetrators are looking for things that can be sold quickly, such as handheld electronics and prescription drugs.

Simon wouldn’t comment on whether the department has suspects for the various crimes because she said different officers were working on the cases and she didn’t know the status of the investigations.

The neighborhood watch is meant to encourage residents to be vigilant and get to know their neighbors so they notice when there is an unusual car in the driveway.

If a neighbor noticed an unfamiliar car in Sponable’s driveway and called the police, he said he’d have no problem with a police officer stopping at his house and asking who the car belonged to.

“Don’t be afraid to bring something up if you’re afraid to be ridiculed,” said Sponable, adding that what irritates him most is he doesn’t know how much money he lost in those glass jars full of coins that were stolen.

Every day after work, Sponable put his extra change in those jars, and he and his wife were planning to count the change and use it on their next vacation.

Despite the latest crime wave, Brian Blakeman said he still feels safe in Tunbridge. His son’s red truck that he uses for his business, Blakeman’s Towing, was stolen about a month ago and wrecked several times before police found it empty in South Royalton. The keys were left in the vehicle overnight, Blakeman said.

Since the incident, the Blakemans have purchased cameras for the store and would like to place one so it faces the road and can see cars drive by in case a neighbor reports a burglary.

Blakeman also locks his car doors now, but it’s a new habit that he has to practice. Yesterday afternoon, Blakeman left his keys in his car after pulling up to Blakeman’s Towing, and then a few minutes later he remembered what he’d done and retrieved the keys.

“I don’t know what else you can do,” Blakeman said. “We keep an eye out more than we used to, but if they’re gonna get in, they’re gonna get in.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com .