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Jim Kenyon: Croydon Grapples With Costly Crime Fighting

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, August 04, 2018

Who knew that fighting crime — in this case, recovering a stolen lawn tractor — could be so darned expensive for a small town?

Certainly not Croydon. The town recently learned that it was on the hook for a bill related to the retrieval of a John Deere that could top $3,500. In a one-cop town with an annual police budget of $38,000, that’s a lot.

This story begins in mid-June, when Police Chief Richard Lee was patrolling the town’s back roads. He came across tire tracks up a steep driveway leading to a vacant house on Pine Hill Road.

Lee, the town’s chief for 18 years, was aware the owners, Sam and Marilyn Hanft, had retired to Georgia. From his periodic checks of the house, which isn’t visible from the road, Lee knew that the Hanfts kept a large lawn tractor in an open area under the front deck.

But when Lee checked this time, the tractor and its attachments were nowhere to be seen.

Lee contacted the Hanfts. Sam, who worked at gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co.’s plant in Newport for 26 years, has a heart ailment that prevents him from traveling much. But Marilyn returned to Croydon to confirm what was missing.

After asking around a bit, Lee had a pretty good idea where he could find the items and who might be behind their disappearance. After obtaining a search warrant, he seized the tractor and two attachments.

Lee then called Tom Wendler, who owns 24-7 Towing and Recovery in Croydon. It took Wendler two trips on July 3 to haul the three pieces of machinery to his Croydon Turnpike Road storage yard.

Towing charges totaled $518. Wendler also began charging $130 a day ($65 for the tractor and $65 for the two attachments) to keep the equipment in his fenced-in yard.

Wendler is among four tow truck operators that the Croydon Selectboard has authorized Lee to call when a vehicle requires towing after an accident or breakdown. The vehicle’s owner is usually responsible for paying the towing company.

I’m not quite sure why, but it took a couple of weeks for Wendler to connect with Sam Hanft in Georgia. Meanwhile, the meter was running on the daily storage fees.

In late July, Hanft received Wendler’s bill that showed he owed roughly $3,000. (The tractor’s estimated worth is between $5,000 and $9,000.)

Enter Newport attorney Lanea Witkus, whom Hanft hired to look into the matter. It seemed to Witkus that since the equipment was seized during a Croydon police investigation that the town — not Hanft — should pay the bill.

After hearing from Witkus, Lee told me that he checked with Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway, who confirmed that items seized with a search warrant were the town’s responsibility.

Lee recently turned over the potential felony theft case to Hathaway. As of last week, no charges had been filed against the suspect identified by Lee, but Hathaway told me that he expects to take up the case soon.

On Tuesday, Lee broke the news to the Selectboard that until the case is settled, which could take months, Croydon is responsible for the seized equipment’s safekeeping.

At the meeting, Lee was asked if the machinery could be moved onto town property, eliminating the daily storage fee. “There’s no place that’s safe to store it,” Lee said.

If the evidence is lost or goes missing, “we wouldn’t have a case anymore,” he added.

This is the first time that Lee could recall Croydon (population 760) having to pay for storing evidence. (Although Lee once had to keep two beer kegs — seized during a bust of an underage drinking party — in his locked office for a couple of months.)

But a lawn tractor? It probably wouldn’t fit under his desk. “It’s one of those unintended consequences of crime that a lot of people don’t see,” Lee said.

Not all small towns have the problem. Enfield uses a town-owned building to store seized materials. In Plainfield, a local business with plenty of indoor space stores vehicles impounded by police for free.

On his bill to Hanft, Wendler wrote that the daily storage fees would continue until the equipment was reclaimed. That comes to about $4,000 a month. (In checking with a couple of towing companies in Newport, I found that Wendler’s fees weren’t out of line.)

When we talked on Wednesday, Wendler said that he had stopped charging for storage more than a week ago — even before learning the town was responsible for the tab.

By my math, the town owes him $3,638, which includes towing.

In more than 20 years of doing business, Wendler said, “this is the first time I’ve ever been in a situation like this. I hate like heck to give the town a bill because I live in the town.”

Lee and others whom I talked with in town are hopeful that the suspected culprit, if convicted, will be required to make restitution.

That might be wishful thinking.

Instead Croydon should start thinking about less costly options than turning to a private storage yard the next time something like this crops up. Which could be sooner rather than later. When I was in Lee’s office last week he was investigating the case of a stolen car.

I’m pretty sure that — unlike the two beer kegs from years ago — it wouldn’t fit in his office either.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.