The new Alaska State Trooper unit began operations on January 1, and made it’s first arrests that same day, when a pair of 22 year olds smashed into a business and tried to grab an ATM machine. So called “Smash and dash” thefts are escalating in the Valley : thefts of tv’s, snomachines, computers.. and guns
The thefts involve home break -ins. What is sparking the crime wave? Trooper Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn [weg zen ] says it’s drugs
“If we can link a theft to a person, normally that person is a known drug user. Very seldom do we find a person who’s just stealing to steal, normally, they steal to support a habit of some sort. “
Sgt. Wegrzyn is part of the four man crime unit. He says Troopers are linking the thefts to the increased use of heroin in the Mat Su
“Heroin is becoming more popular in the Valley. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have found heroin. Today, it’s everywhere.”
Vicki Walner is one Palmer homeowner who is taking the offensive against the thefts.
“If you fight property crime, you have to fight the drugs. And the heroin usage out here in the Valley is astronomical.”
She is fighting back using a tool that young Alaskans know well: social media
Walner settles into a chair in her comfortable kitchen, Springer spaniel Charlie at her feet . Her house, on a two lane blacktop outside of town, is in a peaceful setting. Horses graze in nearby paddocks, and chickens cluck in the midafternoon sun. But crime is spreading a shadow over this bucolic scene. She says crime and drugs go hand in hand. Walner says she’s seen the effects of heroin addiction written all over her neighborhood.
“We had the neighbors over behind us on the next street had their door kicked in. And they were burglarized. And I thought, why don’t people in the neighborhood know, why don’t we tell each other what’s going on so we can watch out for each other. So I started this web page for a few friends, and it just blew up. We have over 5700 members now.”
She says she’s trying to make some changes using Facebook
“So this is our main page, here. And this is a vehicle.. stole a gas can out of sombody’s yard, and they got a picture of em.”
She toggles down the page full of photos, comments, – typical social media stuff. Only all of it is directed toward locating stolen property. Photos of snomachines, cars, trucks, televisions, even pets crowd the page. People are posting them in hopes that someone, somewhere, has information on the stolen property.
“We even recovered a semi that has been missing for four months. It’s amazing when you have that many people, that many eyes and ears out looking for things. “
Don Bennice, executive director of Alaska Family Services in Palmer, is looking at the social costs of heroin addiction – a drug he says that wasn’t even on the counseling service’s radar ten years ago.
“Alcohol far and away is our largest area, and then marijuana certainly is number two. But the one that has really changed over the last few years is herion use. Heroin use has dramatically increased.”
When Troopers shut down the meth labs in the Valley, drug users turned to the prescription drug, oxycontin to stay high. But the expensive opiate oxycontin led to heroin in short order. *According to the online Daily Beast, a report by the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry found that heroin use in the US has jumped 80 percent between 2007 and 2012, and that three quarters of users live in non – urban locations.
Bennice says a lot of people are moving into the Valley “and they are bringing their baggage with them.”
He says his counselors are also noting “an influx of girls from stable families” coming in for help. He says that the heroin in the Valley is “cheap”, he suspects, purposely so, “to get young people involved. ” But the drug seems to cross all social borders
“Both sexes, we see it in middle income families. We see it across the board. “
He says there are not enough counseling centers in the Valley to cover the growing number of cases.
“Clearly right now there’s not. That is one of the things we are very concerned about, and right now, we have about ten or eleven providers in the Valley that do behavioral health services. And we are working very hard to coordinate those services to try and meet the new demand.”
According to a health scan released last year by the Mat Su Health Foundation, 36 percent of Valley high school students have tried marijuana, and 3 percent have tried heroin, according to 2011 statistics. But close to 43 percent have tried drugs of various kinds, including meth, oxycontin, spice and cocaine.
Recently state Troopers arrested a 20 year old Wasilla man,Clay Katzmarek, who was providing heroin to juveniles as young as 15. Bennice says, teens simply can’t handle it.
“It affects their brain differently. Their brains aren’t totally formed like an adult’s would be, and it has a much more severe impact on them.”
Where are they getting it? Often, in the mail. A year ago, a drug-sniffing dog at an Anchorage post office led Troopers to a 37 year old Palmer woman, Amber ODell, who was receiving heroin shipments from California at her Palmer post office box.
In Houston not long ago, two men, Barretta Faatafuga and James Gwaltney, both 37, were charged with possession and intent to distribute almost four pounds of heroin shipped to their street address from California.
The disturbing trend goes beyond personal property losses. For example, a Wasilla gunshop was robbed last winter. Sgt. Wegrzyn says those arms were recovered
“We are heavily interested in recovering stolen firearms. The other part of it is, if they fall into the wrong hands, and then those guns are then involved in other crimes. In like in the first quarter, we recovered 24 stolen guns. And, I’m positive, that a large number of those would have never been recovered without this unit being formed. Because we had the time to go out and track those guns down.”
Meanwhile, Vicki Walner continues her crusade to track down stolen property.
“Nobody used to like a nosey Nora, but nosey Nora is going to be the one that keeps your house from being broken into, ” she laughs.
Walner says her site provides the oversight to track stolen property quickly, and tells this story about two snomachiners who stopped in Wasilla for a bite after a run. But when they finished eating:
“The trailer and snomachines are gone. So they immediately put it on our group. Well immediately, reports of it start coming in. ..’ I saw them pulling out of the restaurant , and this is the direction they were going’ .. ‘ i saw them on Knik-GooseBay road,’ .. and this went on for about two hours. Next thing we know, someone calls in and say ‘someone just dumped a trailer and two snomachines off on my street’. It got so hot, they just dumped it. “
She says the thieves are keeping up with her Facebook page too, although they probably don’t like what they see there.