JOPLIN, Mo. —
It’s 2 a.m. A 63-year-old woman is awakened by two masked men in her home on a nice residential street in northeast Joplin. The men are armed with knives, and they expect her to cooperate.
They steal three laptop computers, some jewelry, computer external storage devices, a 27-inch television set, a mobile phone, prescription drugs and the woman’s purse before driving away in her car.
Police catch up with the two by using a dog to track them from the woman’s home to the house where they are arrested.
That was last week.
About three weeks ago, Jeffrey Slama, 58, who lives southeast of Joplin in Newton County, rushes to the phone to dial 911 as an intruder breaks through the front door of his home. He is fatally shot while talking to the dispatcher.
The intruder is still at large.
Home invasions are nothing new, but these incidents and others within the past year in the Joplin area have rattled nerves, particularly among the elderly who live alone and those who live in more isolated areas. Security-system companies have seen an uptick in local inquiries from people who want to protect their homes from intruders.
Law enforcement officials are not sure whether these incidents of terror on the homefront are increasing because home invasions are not tracked as a specific category of crime. The closest thing to it is a first-degree burglary, in which a burglar enters a home while someone is in the home.
But unlike a burglary, which typically occurs during the day when no one is at home, a home invasion usually happens at night and involves a physical confrontation in which the intruder instills fear in the victim.
Lt. Matt Stewart, with the Joplin Police Department, said first-degree burglaries are up by 17 percent in Joplin when compared with last year.
The raw numbers for Joplin show that there were 75 first-degree burglaries in 2012. So far this year, there have been 88.
Some crime analysts have linked the increase in crime to the state of the economy, while others point to drug use and trafficking as significant factors. Some think the traditional commercial targets of robbers — convenience stores and fast-food restaurants — are no longer favored because of increased security, such as video surveillance systems and silent alarms.
By comparison, a house is a soft target — except for the fact that gun ownership is high in this region for both hunting and self-protection.
Ken Copeland, sheriff of Newton County, where several high-profile home invasions have occurred in the past year, questions the intelligence of a person who would invade a home in Southwest Missouri.
“What do I think? I think they are pretty damn stupid,” he said. “Somebody is going to get shot.”
Copeland said he thinks most home invasions are drug related. He wonders whether drugs may embolden home intruders to do things they might not otherwise do. Being confronted by someone in your home is scary enough, but being confronted by someone under the influence is something entirely different. He is not alone in that opinion.
“They are not on the right track. We really don’t understand the thinking behind these individuals,” said Dale Owen, a former officer with the Joplin Police Department and owner of Joplin’s S&S Security Systems. “It makes no sense to us sane people. That’s what makes a home invasion so scary.”
Cpl. Chuck Niess, with the Joplin Police Department, said, “They don’t think about what they are doing.”
Just the quest for drugs can trigger a home invasion.
An example of that occurred in December of last year when four armed men invaded a home on Raccoon Road in northeast Newton County. They were looking for crack cocaine and money. A family of four, including a baby and toddler, were awakened from bed in the middle of the night. One of the intruders pistol-whipped the father in what Copeland described as a nightmare episode.
“But it turned out to be a case of mistaken residence,” said Copeland. “This had the feel of a gang-related entry to it, but these were good, solid folks who were not connected to drugs in any way to cause this.”
A convenience-store surveillance camera in Sarcoxie captured one of the intruders on tape, but authorities have not been able to identify that person.
Copeland, a former member of the Joplin Police Department, said, “We would have burglaries when I worked for the police department, but first-degree burglaries were far and few between. They usually happened at night when the burglar did not know the person was at home.
“I think first-degree burglaries and home invasions are occurring more nowadays, and that could have something to do with drug use. These home invasions typically — but not always — are in some way connected to a drug deal gone bad.”
SOCIAL MEDIA MIGHT HELP
At one time, Neighborhood Watch programs were active in the region.
Neighbors gathered together to watch out for each other, take note of suspicious cars or activities and keep an eye on the children in the neighborhood. But for a Neighborhood Watch to be successful, participation must be high and constant. Law enforcement officials say that makes them difficult to sustain.
There are four Neighborhood Watch programs in Joplin and one in Neosho. There are no Neighborhood Watch programs in Webb City, where there were once as many as seven.
Webb City might not have such a program, but it has something that has caught the eye of Sgt. Jeremiah Woolverton, with the Webb City Police Department.
“The Robin Ridge subdivision has something like a Neighborhood Watch on Facebook,” he said. “I think this idea has real potential. It’s an example of where technology has helped in the sense of bringing people together.
“It’s a close-knit group. They chat about things and whether there have been break-ins.”
Neighborhood Watch programs may have fallen from favor, but that does not mean those that are operating are not effective.
In Neosho, Officer Phillip Whiteman met with a group of neighbors to hear their complaints about vandalism, burglaries and thefts in their neighborhood. After hearing them out, some old Neighborhood Watch signs were dusted off, and a plan of action was devised.
“We saw a significant drop in calls to that neighborhood because the neighbors became more vigilant,” Whiteman said. “We had 100 calls to that neighborhood from January to October of last year. It fell to 13 calls after the Neighborhood Watch program was formed. That was from October through the end of the year, and it’s still way down.
“The key to success is for the neighbors to keep on this and not ease off.”
TRIED AND TRUE, AND SOMETHING NEW
There are things, often inexpensive measures, that homeowners can do to harden their property against intruders.
“Light your place up at night. Keep your shrubs trimmed. Lock and secure your doors and windows,’’ said Copeland. “An alarm system is hard to beat. You want an audible alarm system. You don’t want a silent system. You want to alert the person inside, alert the neighbors and everybody else with the hope it scares the perpetrator off.”
Stewart advises residents to carefully examine the environment outside the home.
“Make sure your shrubs are no higher than two feet and not covering your windows,” he said. “Put rock mulch under your windows because walking on rock makes more noise than walking on wood mulch. Think about ways to make it difficult for someone to hide and sneak around your house.
“Good outdoor lighting is important and make sure to have it on at night. When the city beefed up street lighting in some Joplin neighborhoods, the crime rate went down at night. If a house is well lit, it reduces the opportunity for the burglar to sneak around.”
Owen, who operates S&S Security Systems, said recent events in Joplin and the area have triggered inquiries from local residents about security.
“Camera requests have gone up. It was a camera that showed the identity of the man who burned down the mosque,” he said. “People want to know who has been around their building or tried to get access into their buildings.
“Bring attention to the property with signage and window stickers that show a security system is active. Lighting is a big deterrent.”
There are monitoring systems, he said, that contact law enforcement directly.
“They get law enforcement on the way so that you are not walking in on something that is in progress,” said Owen. “You can also get a door intercom with a camera in it. The camera activates when it sees someone at the door. You can see who is at the door from wherever you are in your house. If it’s somebody you don’t know, you don’t have to respond. This can be helpful to an older person who lives alone. Because the camera takes a picture of the person at your door, you can see who has been at your door when you come home.
“But there are simple things you can do to be more secure. Lock your doors and windows. Look through the keyhole to see who is there before you open the door.”
Owen said he is not sure whether there is an increasing trend of home invasions in the region, but there is no reason to think that “desperate people will not continue to look for events of opportunity.”
In 1966, the nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote captured in dramatic detail one of the most well-known home invasions in U.S. history. The novel tells the story of the quadruple murder of the Herbert Clutter family by Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith at the Clutter’s rural farm home in Holcomb, Kan., on Nov. 15, 1959.