Burglaries: Out of control

• East Precinct officers strive in vain to keep up with break-ins and those who commit them

Portland police arrested Christopher Gaetaniello in mid-December and twice more the first week of January. He spent a total of eight hours in jail, released all three times on his own recognizance Ñ a no-bail, get-out-of-jail-free card.

The primary charge: burglary. The cops: frustrated. The reason: There are so many like him.

Burglary shot up by almost a quarter in 2004, often fueled by the drug methamphetamine, and hit the Police Bureau's East Precinct hard. Southeast Precinct has more burglaries but also has more detectives. At East, three detectives, soon to be four, work those cases full-time. They say they haven't investigated an identity-theft case in two years, and fraud cases only very rarely.

Just burglaries.

And burglaries have become one of the hardest crimes on which to hold criminals in Multnomah County, with full jails and a 'matrix' that keeps violent crooks in jail but often freely releases those accused of or sentenced in minor crimes.

East Precinct Cmdr. Greg Hendricks, calls it a 'public-safety crisis,' the worst he's seen in 29 years in law enforcement.

It has left his detectives at East working against the almost crushing weight of time, sweat, evidence and connections to build cases and keep those they arrest in jail.

'You call the jail and tell them if someone tries to release this guy, 'Call me, here's my cell phone, here's my home phone,' ' Detective Dave Anderson said. 'I get that call, then I call my sergeant, who calls the commander, who calls and asks for a favor to keep the guy in jail. So it's not just a matter of pulling strings once. You have to keep pulling the strings constantly.'

The detectives can't act on most of the tips or evidence they receive. The crimes or criminals are too small-time or the detectives are too busy, and no one forgets that the jails are full.

It's a simple calculation, Hendricks said: Meth created more burglars as more people needed things to sell for drug money. Burglaries spiked. The detectives don't have the resources to investigate each one, a problem made almost moot by the lack of jail space in Multnomah County Ñ of 2,555 jail beds, officials can afford to use 1,579.

Bottomless well

What car thefts are to North Precinct and transients are to Central Precinct, burglary is to East, which begins roughly at Southeast 102nd Avenue and continues east to the city line.

The detectives and crime analysts at East get 30 to 40 residential burglary reports a week, perhaps two of which contain information that they say by itself could trigger an arrest. DNA matches from burglaries Ñ like gold, they say Ñ collect unread on their desks.

'We could arrest someone every two days,' Anderson said. 'That would be like being on fire. But we can't. Every piece of paper takes time.'

The Records Division no longer logs any items without a serial number into its database. To find something such as antique jewelry, detectives must hope it's among the 350,000 items contained annually in pawn shop reports to the Police Bureau. Two officers are assigned to reading and entering those reports.

Burglaries declined in East Precinct Ñ the largest in the Police Bureau at nearly 33 square miles Ñ from 1998 to 2002, but 2002 showed the beginning of an increase. Final numbers from 2004 are expected to be released any day, but figures released in September showed 23 percent more burglaries in Portland over 2003, even as crime overall dipped 6 percent.

Arrests the detectives do make Ñ even the big ones Ñ have little impact on an epidemic of residential burglaries.

'Those guys that did 100 burglaries out here, I looked to see what impact it had on our crime stats,' Anderson said, referring to a gang of four people he helped arrest in September who called themselves the Dirt Crew. 'None. None at all.'

All hands on deck

In the next two months, the strategy at East will change. Hendricks plans to focus his entire precinct's resources Ñ not just the three detectives Ñ intensively on residential burglaries, the avenue by which he thinks his cops can reach meth, identity theft and fraud. Any evidence of burglary by juveniles will go to the School Police Division, which will compare evidence and names with truancy records, Capt. Dorothy Elmore said.

'Residential burglary is the most important piece of this public-safety crisis because we can get our arms around it,' Hendricks said. 'We have to get our arms around it. It is already out of control.'

Even the victims seem to understand.

'The cops are the best,' said Jeff Paul, dealer principal at Portland Motorcycle Co., 10652 N.E. Holman St., which was burglarized Dec. 19. 'They do what they can. The burglaries, it's just part of what you get used to out here.'

Detectives and criminal analysts said they feel pressure not to blame low staffing levels or jam-packed jails for the number of crimes they see. Hendricks said he encourages them to talk about need.

And they do.

'More jail beds and more investigators, in that order,' East Precinct Sgt. Steve Larsen said.

And Anderson said new state restrictions demanding that pharmacy customers show a photo ID to buy ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products used to make meth were almost worthless. Above his desk he keeps 36 Oregon driver's licenses, each with a different name but the same person in the photo. Only one has the ID thief's real name. The man who made the licenses made 29 others that are not in Anderson's possession.

In, out, in Ñ for now

Sometimes, of course, an arrested suspected burglar stays in jail. East Precinct Detective Jeanne Stevenson tracked Timothy Sean Nellis, a career burglar with a record of convictions going back two decades. He was arrested April 12, 2002, and released two days later. Arrested again Oct. 19, 2002, Nellis went free after three days. Nellis also spent the period from Dec. 23, 2002, to Jan. 29, 2003, in jail.

Today, Nellis is kept at the county correctional facility in Troutdale, where he went after an August arrest by Gresham police. Interest from Gresham and Portland police and the county's Parole and Probation Division keep him there, as do charges including burglary and parole violations.

The 41-page file on his recent activities alone includes 78 alleged crimes Ñ meth possession, trespassing, burglary and more Ñ in which he was cited, charged, mentioned or arrested. Stevenson, a Portland cop for almost 18 years and a detective for 12, said her efforts on the case represented the average work necessary to keep a burglar locked up.

'But that still doesn't exempt him from being matrixed out again,' Multnomah County Sheriff's Lt. Mike Shults said.

Just like Gaetaniello, whose next court appearance remains a few weeks away. If he fails to show, as he did for his arraignment Jan. 5, another warrant for his arrest will go out.

Anderson tries not to think about that.

'You get a lot of stimulation and a lot of satisfaction in this job,' he said. 'But if you pull back and look at the big picture, then why am I coming to work today?'