On the evening of August 20th my home was burglarized. The thieves took nearly everything I use to conduct my work, namely my cameras and my computers. They also stole my wallet with all of my UK things. Fortunately, I had all of my field notes backed up to the cloud and about 90 percent of my photos. Gone are all of my images of Juarez, which I failed to back up (I thought I had). If you would like to help me out in replacing those things, you can donate to me with the button below. Any money I raise beyond my essential replacement costs will be donated to From Gangs to Jobs which works valiantly in reintegrating people into society, making it better for all of us.
I had just gotten back home from my volunteering gig with From Gangs to Jobs. I have to admit, that I didn't see the point of the “dream boards” we were working on at first. But as I worked with the different students, it became clear: they could not envision a future for themselves. Many had seen themselves as dead or in prison. With those prospects, only the past and the present have meaning. The future is the luck of the draw until that luck runs out one day. I hadn't realized the importance of dreaming about a future, something to work toward, that sometimes or, even often, that requires a person to delay immediate gratification. Without that thought about the future, it is hard to get people to think of the consequences of their actions. That’s precisely why the dream boards were so important.
My drive home was uneventful. I parked in front of my house and opened walked up to my front door. I found the key for the security door and turned the lock and, just like always, I did the same for the wooden door. The twilight dimly lit the house. The light in the back room was on and brought the scene into focus. The back door was wide open. Glass was all over the floor. The T.V. in the living room was gone. We had been burglarized.
I stood in the threshold of the door totally stunned. Once the reality sunk I walked to my room. The burglars certainly weren't of the feline variety. They came through like a tornado and gutted the entire house. The rooms were certifiable disaster areas. My mattress had been flipped up and all of my possessions that they didn't take had been dumped on the floor. The things I had packed carefully away in boxes were scattered in a massive mess. Some of the things had been destroyed in the burglar's hurry to get through every last thing. The muddle made it impossible for me to make a snap analysis of my losses.
I called 9-1-1 and started talking to the operator. My phone crapped out and I couldn't hear her anymore. I couldn't get reception so I ran to my neighbor’s house. There was a light on in the window and banged on the door. No answer. "Shit, shit, shit," I thought and I ran to another neighbor’s house.
A teenage girl opened the door. I asked her to call 9-1-1 for me because my phone wasn't working. Her father emerged from the back with a phone and called the police for me. The 9-1-1 operator said they would send a unit when one became available. She didn't have a time frame for me.
My neighbors stood outside in solidarity with me. I talked to the dad and asked him whether he had heard anything.
“No, I didn’t hear anything, man. I’m sorry.”
I went back into the house to better assess the damage done and losses incurred. The burglars had crowbarred the rear security door. Perhaps the deadbolt wasn’t fully engaged. They had broken the door frame, trying to pry the second lock. Unsuccessful, they used a rock to shatter the window of the door and open the locks from within. The burglars had gone through almost all of the house systematically, leaving only the kitchen untouched.
I walked into my room with a deep sense of dread. Clearly gone were my computers.
Except for my photos of Juárez, and some of El Paso, all of my work had been backed up. My cameras were gone. I called a friend up so he could download my PhD work and disassociate the computers from the cloud account. The thieves had stolen my UK wallet; my driver’s license, bank card, school ID and the little cash I had all collected for my eventual return journey were all taken. Seeing my wallets gone, I then looked for my passports. They had been carefully kept in my bag. The bag was empty. My heart sank and began to panic. “Holy shit,” I thought, “They have stolen my identity.” I went outside, unable to sit down inside the house. I felt my blood pressure dropping and felt as if I was about to pass out.
As I was crouched on my hamstrings, Yana, a housemate pulled up. I had already forgotten that I had called her. I stayed outside as she went in to see the damage for herself. As I paced on the sidewalk, I saw a police cruiser come to a stop on the corner. Rather than turn he continued straight. I chased after him, but I could only run so fast in my flip-flops. I screamed at him to stop and waved my hands. He just continued on his way, creeping through the neighborhood in no hurry to any destination and with no desire to help me.
I angrily walked back my house. I was now pissed off at the cops just as much as I was pissed off at the robbers. They clearly didn't seem to give a fuck about this neighborhood. How can you miss a screaming person running after your car? Are the officers that oblivious to their surroundings? Apparently so.
Yana, was alarmed that the police didn't stop, so she called the police again. We would have to wait, the operator said.
Yana and I walked through the house. Her face was stoic as her mind absorbed the devastating scene of broken glass and tossed belongings. We saw that my housemate’s room had been done like mine. His mattress was thrown. All of his drawers had been gutted. Debris was all over the floor. From what I could see, his laptop and television were gone.
Yana called her friend, a kind fella named Roger, who was at a conference in another city. He wanted to know what numbers I needed in order to cancel my stolen bank cards and report my missing IDs. Armed with the numbers I began to call the different hotlines to start dealing with this incubus.
An hour and a half into waiting for the police to arrive, my housemate, Khaled, arrived home. I had called him to warn him. He had been at work – a job he had recently started. With my volunteering and his working, the house was empty for more than a few hours at a time for the first time since I had arrived to Arizona. It was a window of opportunity that was not ignored.
Khaled looked at the kitchen and realized it had been pretty much untouched. He opened the fridge and pulled out two beers. Handing one to me, he said, “I think this is a good a time as any to have a beer.”
I cracked open the beer and saw the police cruiser pull up. The officer was a young Hispanic man. He came in and had a look at the breach point. He saw the security door and looked at the lock.
“You see there, that’s where they crowbarred the lock. It probably wasn't clicked all the way. Then the rest was easy for them.”
We went over to my room and he asked me to tell him what things were missing. I recounted all of the things I had lost – my computers, my cameras, my UK wallet – and started wading through the rubble to try to identify anything else that might have been taken. In doing so, I found my passports on the floor, discarded. Clearly these guys didn't see their value, and for the only time in the ordeal, I felt thankful.
The officer then moved on to Khaled and to Yana to identify the other missing items. He went out to his cruiser to file the paperwork. Another officer pulled up behind him to check in, it seemed. I went up to them to find out about getting the police report as I hoped to be able to claim my losses on my mother’s homeowner’s insurance.
“You’ll be able to get the report in ten days,” the officer who had initially responded told me.
“I was wondering if there has been a pattern of home invasions or burglaries in this neighborhood?”
“You know what, I don’t think you know what kind of neighborhood you live in. This neighborhood is controlled by a street gang. The gang in this area is Barrio Trece Cuatro. If I had to guess, I bet this is one of their jobs.
“But we don’t get a lot of calls. People don’t like calling the police in this neighborhood and the gang influences that. The last call like this in the area was maybe three weeks ago over there on Thomas.
“The best thing you can do to get your stuff back is to give us the serial numbers for everything. We can put that information in the database and if these idiots try to pawn your stuff, we can get them that way.”
The police officers gave me a “Your Rights as a Crime Victim” pamphlet with the report number and drove away. No forensics team was to come. I picked up my passports and went to the office to keep them in the locked cabinet there. Who knows, maybe these bastards would get greedy and come back for what they missed.
I stayed with my friend Rick for the night. The room was such a disaster there was nowhere for me to sleep at home. He had Chinese food and beer waiting for me. The rage inside of me was mounting, and I started to fixate on my losses. To get my mind off of the situation, Rick changed the subject. I reminisced about my cats and calmed down. I was emotionally drained, so passing out was no problem.
Khaled remained at the house the whole night. He sat on the porch drinking and smoking. It was just a little too much to handle. With his wife dying of cancer and his struggling to earn enough to contribute to her treatments I know he could not deal with the two grand in losses he just sustained. He cried himself to sleep in the early morning hours.
The First Time
This was not the first time I had been burglarized in my life. Shortly after I graduated from Tulane, I was staying with a friend, Tim, who was in the police academy. His house was in a mostly student inhabited area in New Orleans. It was reasonably safe – I could walk at night with no issues – and I didn't think much about any potential risks. One day, I went out to grab some lunch. When I came back, I didn't actually notice that I had been burgled.
I sat down and started to munch my pizza when I reached for my laptop – I had been recording some music on it – and I realized that although my guitar was still there, my computer was gone. “That’s odd,” I thought, “I could have sworn my computer was there. Maybe I left it in the bedroom.” I got up and walked over to the bedroom and I saw a mess on the floor. It was all of the contents of my backpack. Gone, indeed, was my computer. Also gone was all of my camera gear.
I called Tim. It was his day off and he had gone to visit his girlfriend.
“Raj get out of the house! I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Wait for me outside.”
Tim had guns inside the house and he was afraid that the burglar could still be in the house and, having found a gun, could be waiting for someone to enter the room. Tim, an ex-marine, arrive as promised and said in his thick Arkansas accent, “Raj, I’m going to clear the house. If somebody runs out of the house, you run the other way.”
Tim came out of the house and was putting his gun away. His head was hung, disappointed that he hadn't found the perpetrator and said, “Raj, I’m really sorry I couldn't kill that motherfucker for you today.”
We sat out in the yard waiting for NOPD to come. Eventually they responded. Tim identified himself as the owner of the house and as a cadet and the officer called in the forensics technician. A good while later the tech showed up and dusted for prints at the point of entry. I asked him if he found anything. He said, “To tell you the truth, it’s hard to find usable information. It’s not like CSI or whatever you see on T.V. we don’t have that kind of technology and we don’t have that kind of success. Chances are you won’t see your stuff again. I’m sorry about that.”
He was right.
The Morning After
I woke up early and left Rick’s house, careful to lock up behind me as best as possible given the previous day’s events. I drove over to my house to start cleaning up. I cleared a little path way to my closet. For about fifteen minutes I was okay. Then I just started screaming obscenities. Any sadness I once had was replaced with rage. I wanted to hurt the people who did this to me. I didn't want to kill them, but if they had to shit into a colostomy bag for the rest of their life I think I would be O.K. with that.
As I cleaned up I was better able to assess what had been taken. Gone was my watch. They also snagged a duffel bag that I kept all of my books and some personal items to carry away my computers, taking with them a little ball that I cherished as it was the last object my father held in his hands before he died. Besides the photos, that was the only irreplaceable thing they got from me.
I continued to go through my belongings, trying to put things away. As I worked pangs of rage consistently hit me. “Fuck you!” I would scream from time to time. “Wasn't it bad enough to steal all of what I need to work? No. You motherfuckers had to DESTROY the entire fucking house. You had to fucking tear it apart.”
It reached a point that I couldn't be inside any longer and I went outside. The day was remarkably nice. A man walked by me and I said hello to him. I asked him if he knew whether he knew who to reach out to in order to recover stolen property.
“Yeah, I know somebody. Why, what’s up?”
“We got hit last night, man. They fucking jacked everything. Every last thing we had, man. They got it all. Flatscreen T.V., computers, cameras, phones, chargers – anything that had any value, they got it.”
“As a matter of fact, I did hear about somebody who was selling a flat screen. Man, that’s some bullshit. I bet it was those fucking tweekers. They always breaking into decent peoples’ houses, stealing shit.”
“No kidding man.”
“Look, man, I know a guy. I’ll put the word out. I’ll send out some subliminals, you know what I’m saying, and see if somebody’s got a computer for sale.”
“How much do you think they’re going to get for that shit?”
“You know they ain't gonna get much for that shit. They’re probably going to sell it to some drug dealer who ain't going to pay them much at all – all of that, man, might get them less than five hundred.”
I gave my new friend my business card and he went on his way. I started to walk around the neighborhood to see if my neighbors had seen or heard anything or if they knew where stolen stuff gets sold. I met an older white man a couple of doors down and asked him. He was hard of hearing and hadn't heard anything.
“I’m really sorry. We got hit here before, too. That’s why we have the dogs.”
I met another man up the street. He was a landlord who rented out a property on the street and knew the area pretty well.
“You know where to look are the drug houses. You see that apartment complex over there? There’s a dope house in there. Another one of these house further, I’m not sure which one exactly, is also a drug house. There’s another place, about two blocks from here, which is also a place where they go and sell things they steal. Just walk around at dusk. They’ll come out. They sell their dope then. You’ll see them. You’ll know.
“And you know what, that stuff they steal goes for cheap. A dope fiend will rob you and then sell it to his dealer who’ll sweat him hard. He’s going to get lowballed and because he’s hungry for dope he takes it. I had a tenant living here a little while ago and they stole his $4,500 dollar bike. The dumbass who bought it was riding it around the neighborhood so I rolled up on him. I said, ‘how much do want for that bike?’ He tried to bullshit me and tell me how much it was worth and I said, ‘Let’s try this again. I know where that bike came from. How much do you have in it?’ He’d gotten the bike for twenty bucks.”
I thanked the man for the information and continued my walk through the neighborhood. The next man I came across was a Mexican man who had just finished working for the day.
“Hi, sir. Do you know where folks sell stolen stuff around here?”
“We got robbed last night. They took everything.”
“I don’t know. The best place to look is the fumeros [drug smokers]. They’re everywhere here. It’s like a plague. They are on this street, buying and selling their drugs. That would be a good place to start.”
The next person I crossed paths with was a young woman who was tending to her garden.
“Hi. We got burglarized last night and I’m just trying to hit up people in the neighborhood to see what’s up – whether they know where this kind of stuff might end up besides pawn shops.”
“I don’t know. But if you find out, let us know. We've had stuff walk off all the time. We had a trailer to haul things that was stolen one night. They took it right off the truck’s hitch. The next morning we saw that it was gone. We drove all over the area. Never found it.”
I was almost home. I saw one last guy out and about. He was a young Hispanic man with gang tattoos on his chest.
“Hey, bro. Do you know where I might find some stolen shit around here?”
“Not here man. I just moved back in with my moms. I’m not from this neighborhood.”
“So you don’t know what’s up?”
“Naw, man. I’m just keeping my head low. I can’t be fucking up around here. Sorry holmes.”
I had gotten a little information and a promise that word would hit the street. The value of those items isn't worth the cost of my life, so I’ll probably leave the rest be, but at least I can say that I put forth an effort.
Following up on a Lead
As I walked to the office early one morning, I saw a man sitting on his porch. I asked him the same refrain about where to find fenced goods and that I had been knocked off.
“I know where they live. Hold on a minute. I’ll get you the address.”
He went inside his house and brought out a folder. In it was a description of a person who he knew to be a burglar and their approximate address.
“Man, they’re lerpers [crystal meth users who thieve to feed their addiction]. They roll around between three and four in the morning searching for places to rip off. It’s a little white woman and a couple of Mexican dudes.”
“I can’t believe they would hit their own neighborhoods.”
“Man, those lerpers would steal from their mamas. They don’t care. That high is what they’re chasing.”
I thanked him and took the information to the police department. When I got there, I told the woman at the window that I had a possible lead for my case. She looked up and gave me the name of the detective in charge of my case who I needed to write with the information. I also told her that when I was burgled in New Orleans that forensics took prints and I asked her why that didn't happen in this case.
“Wow, that’s impressive. Here we don’t typically send out the forensics team for anything besides a homicide. There is only one van.”
Feelings of Retribution
The strangest part of this whole ordeal was my feelings. As a victim, I was enraged. I wanted my stuff back. I wanted to hurt the people who had ransacked my house. I wanted to hurt them personally and see their pain. The base feelings I felt to exact revenge were undeniable.
As a criminologist, thinking rationally, I knew that such actions would achieve nothing, and possibly make me feel worse in the long run if I were to have opportunity to hurt those people. Moreover, my stuff wouldn't be returned and there is not chance that punishing those guys would make me any safer from being burgled in the future.
My father was a psychiatrist who specialized in individuals who had all sorts of addictions. From the stories he would bring home, I knew that the addictions an addict experiences causes them to do things they otherwise wouldn't do. If burglars were indeed tweekers who jacked me, there’s no doubt that those guys’ problems are well worse than mine.
It’s hard to believe that a person who is capable of exacting such damage on to another’s property isn't aware of the emotional and physical costs of their actions. But that is probably exactly the case. Having interviewed a couple of people who have gone down for home invasions, I understand that that cost does not enter into their minds. Often these individuals are drug addled. More than once I heard the phrase, “You have to be high or dope sick to that kind of thing. If you weren't you’d never do it.”
But rationality doesn't always trump emotion. I know that I’ll get over this. I got over the first time I was burgled. I came out OK, all things considered. I still had my passport. I had all of my field notes. I hadn't been physically harmed. But who would fault me for wanting to see those guys hammered? A defense attorney, maybe? A criminologist, perhaps? But only in a professional capacity. At this point, though I know that two wrongs don’t make a right, I can’t help but feel that it would make me feel a hell of a lot better. But maybe if only those guys could have dreamed of a better end for themselves, I wouldn't be in this nightmare.