Dressed as doctors or businessmen heading to work, disguised burglars in Winter Park instead break in, smashing back windows of houses and stealing valuables. A recent alert from the Winter Park Police department describes burglars with a new angle: Looking just like you.
“We really want our residents to realize that burglars don’t always have a ski mask and a crowbar,” Winter Park Police Lt. Tom Pearson said regarding the recent trend in rich neighborhoods. “They’re not stereotypical.”
Pearson said that no houses have been hit in Winter Park in the last week, but that doesn’t mean the group is planning on stopping.
“We would have none for three, four or five days, then boom we’d have one or two,” he said. “These things seldom stop and there’s always someone to take their place.”
On just one day in mid-April, Pearson said, the group hit two houses within a block of each other on Dale Avenue and Woodland Avenue, escaping in a black Cadillac Escalade, according to witnesses. But the crimes are also more widespread. They hit a house in Orange County last week, using a woman dressed in hospital scrubs.
The theft ring appears to be the same that’s used a similar technique in other parts of Orange and Osceola counties. In Winter Park they operate in wealthier neighborhoods north and east of Park Avenue, notably along the brick-lined streets along Via Tuscany, and south near Baldwin Park and west along U.S. Highway 17-92.
But unlike some recent waves of burglaries and car break-ins by organized theft rings, Pearson said it looks like this group is based in Central Florida. It’s not just passing through.
They work quickly and stealthily, arriving in luxury vehicles and wearing sport coats or suits, knocking on doors innocently at first. Minutes later they return to the homes where nobody answered the door, step out of their Escalades, BMWs, Mini Coopers or new rental cars wearing professional attire, then walk to the backyard and break into the house out of sight.
Others work as lookouts to be sure nobody returns or asks questions. It’s all a more sophisticated angle on typical burglarizing, but with a twist that keeps neighbors from paying attention.
They have the same hallmarks, Pearson said. A neighbor walking a dog may not even notice as a burglary is happening right in front of them. There are no crowbar marks on the front door, no broken side gates. But when homeowners return home after work, the backs of their homes are disasters of broken doors and shattered glass. Thirty homes have been hit this year in Winter Park alone, all with the same signatures.
They appear to be crimes where an easier way in made the home a more apt victim, based on police reports Pearson has reviewed. The group that has yet to break locks within view of the street. Few of the homes were alarmed.
“We have had incidents where the homes had alarm systems where they had not been set,” Pearson said.
As most of the burglaries are happening in the morning, police theorize the burglars are watching houses for the residents to leave for work for the day before they knock and hope for nobody to answer. That triggers the second step, where a burglary team comes in, breaks in the back of the house and steals valuables.
Pearson said that the recent media publicity and the resultant public awareness has helped to slow the rising trend a bit.
Since starting to walk at-risk neighborhoods in the last few days, Winter Park Police Officer Lina Strube has seen her Neighborhood Watch sign-up sheet fill up quickly. Officers have placed more than 800 notices to let residents know to be on the lookout, because burglars now are blending in better than ever.
“These crime trends don’t quell unless everyone is vigilant,” Pearson said. “Our public has been exceptional in terms of giving us feedback and tips. Our calls for service have been way up. That’s probably been the one bright spot.”
Police advise not approaching suspects, but getting detailed information about them and relaying that information to police immediately. The non-emergency line for Winter Park is 407-644-1313, or call 911 if it appears to be an emergency.