Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Home invasions prompt tighter security for seniors

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In response to another home invasion in Montgomery County, police are again warning seniors to be aware of suspicious people in their neighborhoods and to take measures to protect their homes.

A Bethesda couple was tied up and robbed on May 7 during a home invasion that police say could be connected to a series of break-ins in the county that have taken place since last fall.

The invasion occurred at about 2:30 a.m. in the 5800 block of Brookside Drive, police said. The husband and wife, both in their 70s, were awakened by a man with a handgun. The couple was then restrained while the man robbed the home. At some point, the suspect struck the female victim, but she did not require hospitalization. The husband was not injured.

Officers are currently looking for a single suspect who they believe is connected to at least four other home invasion robberies.

The suspect is described as a Hispanic male between 20 and 30 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, and weighing approximately 150 pounds. He was wearing a bandana over his face and green, military-style fatigues.

Detectives are investigating the links between this robbery and previous robberies in Montgomery County, according to Montgomery County Police Department spokeswoman Lucille Baur.

‘‘Detectives can’t confirm they’re all related but the suspect description is similar,” she said. ‘‘It makes sense to consider the possibility that this may be the same person.”

A series of home invasions and robberies have occurred in Montgomery County and Northwest Washington, D.C. since September, according to police reports. The four previous incidents all included the victims being tied up and robbed.

Baur said the best way for people to protect themselves is to be knowledgeable of the previous attacks, and to be prepared.

‘‘It’s important to make sure the windows and doors are locked,” she said. ‘‘While this will not absolutely prevent a would-be home invasion robber, it may deter them. Keeping the house well-lit and the shrubbery cut back will also help.”

Sgt. James Stirkens, of the county police Community Outreach Division, said it’s important for seniors to vary their schedules.

‘‘Our advice is don’t do the same things every day,” he said. ‘‘... Vary your patterns of how you operate, like get the mail at a different time, or have guests come over to the house. If someone is watching your patterns, they won’t know what to do.”

One of the previous victims of the string of attacks said she has taken precautions in the wake of her incident, including the installation of a ‘‘super” alarm system that senses motion around the perimeter of her property.

She also said that neighborhood residents are calling each other ‘‘at least once a day” to make sure everyone is safe.

‘‘Everyone’s aware that this is going on; we’re paying a lot of attention” she said. ‘‘Now we just try to keep each other safe.”

While she thinks it’s important to inform the public of the attacks, and what they can do to mitigate the chance of being robbed, she said a list of helpful hints sent out by police was ‘‘laughable.”

‘‘I had everything and he still found his way in,” she said. ‘‘If they want to get in badly enough they will.”

At her house the intruder pried the bars over her basement windows open and climbed in.

Other area seniors are also taking steps to protect themselves.

‘‘I wouldn’t say I’m afraid, but we’ve taken some steps,” said Jane Cassidy of Potomac. ‘‘We make sure our doors are double-locked, we’ve pruned our bushes and we have bars over our basement windows.”

Henry Bodine, a senior from Bethesda, said he is afraid, but knows he can’t afford to be.

‘‘It is frightening, but you can’t live in fear,” he said. ‘‘You have to live your life. If you let them know you’re scared, that’s when they prey.”

Vicki Lundquist, of the Maryland office of the American Association of Retired Persons, said it’s important for seniors to stay active. Often times when seniors hear of incidents like this in their communities they shutter themselves inside, Lundquist said, the opposite of what they should do.

‘‘I think it’s important for older Marylanders to remain connected with neighbors and social peers and don’t fall into that isolation trap,” she said. It’s important to stay engaged.”

Lundquist added that safety is often something seniors look for in a community. In a 2006 AARP poll of registered Maryland voters 50 and older, 89 percent of respondents said working on community safety is either ‘‘extremely important” or ‘‘very important” to them.

Get help toprotect yourself

Montgomery County Police offer a home security analysis, available to seniors throughout the county, to determine the safety of your home. Police will check doors and locks, the height of shrubbery and make sure timers work for lights. To arrange for an evaluation, call your police district.

First District-Rockville: 240-773-6070

Second District-Bethesda: 301-652-9200

Third District-Silver Spring: 301-565-7740

Fourth District-Wheaton⁄Glenmont: 240-773-5500

Fifth District-Germantown: 301-840-2650

Sixth District-Gaithersburg⁄Montgomery Village: 240-773-5700