Crooks caught on live feed lead to drop in East Side burglaries

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – She knew it was just a matter of time, but watching two burglars rummage through her home in real-time on her iPhone was still “shocking.”

“You do feel violated,” the homeowner – who asked not to be identified – said, recalling the March 30 burglary of her East Side home.

She said the crime was anticipated, because her house had already been the target of attempted burglaries on several occasions. In fact, the entire East Side was under siege two years ago when there was a rash of house breaks.

“The upstairs window, the screen, had been ripped out and someone had tried to push the window up but it was locked and I think they got scared off,” she said. “Another time a window had been attempted to be pried open, and so I thought, ‘Well, I should really address this.'”

She ended up buying a Nest camera to keep watch on her back door and kitchen area in real-time. The camera detects movement, and occasionally her cat would trigger the system, pinging her cellphone. But at 1:10 p.m. on March 30, her camera sent her an eerie missive: “Your camera spotted a person – kitchen.”

She quickly switched over to the app and could see two masked men walking through her kitchen. Rewinding the video a few moments revealed how they got in: a rock was thrown through the back door window – leaving a hole in the opposite wall – and then a disembodied arm reached in through the hole to unlock it.

The video shows the back door being pushed ajar slightly, then the head of one of the thieves, wearing a surgical mask – presumably to obscure his face – peering in. The person then appears to look right into the camera before closing the door, only to reemerge a moment later with his head completely wrapped and hooded. The same with his accomplice.

The thieves presumably thought the camera was merely recording for posterity, not feeding the images back live to the homeowner’s iPhone. What they likely did not know was that Providence police cruisers were on the way, with their sirens off after the homeowner called 911.

Patrolman Frank Moody was one of the first officers on the scene. Looking through a window into the home, he could see at least two masked subjects walking around. But he wasn’t sure if there were others, and if anyone in the home was being held against their will.

“Seeing them masked up, it just took it to the next level,” Moody said. “I was concerned about them running past me and now we have a foot chase.”

Knowing fellow officers were on the way, and with another patrolman out front, Moody decided to rush in the back door.

“We’ve got them here now, they’re in there and that’s what I get paid to do,” he said.

The video shows Moody charging in with his gun drawn, screaming at the perpetrators to get down in an expletive-laced tirade that would make a drill sergeant blush. The approach is intentional, Moody said, to “put the suspects off balance.”

“I might be a little strong and people might find it insulting, but I can always apologize later to somebody and clean it up,” Moody said. “I can apologize later for stepping on your toes and hurting your feelings.”

Soon, the homeowner arrived to find a small army of police cruisers on her street and two suspects in handcuffs. When she told police she had the whole incident on video, they were “totally psyched,” she said.

Moody apologized for his coarse language as the video was replayed. She didn’t care.

“They were fantastic,” she said. “I can’t say enough about them.”

Reduction in burglaries

East Siders weren’t always singing the praises of the Providence Police Department. Statistics show there were 395 burglaries in 2014, followed by 321 in 2015 – a big leap from years past. Exasperated residents called a meeting with police officials and Mayor Jorge Elorza.

Lt. Joseph Donnelly – the commander of an East Side police district – recalled Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements kicking off the tense meeting with an inquiry.

“One of the first questions the colonel asked was, ‘How many have been a victim of a crime or a break?'” Donnelly said. “Eight out of the 10 hands went up and I said, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough meeting.'”

It was, but Donnelly said the community had a right to be angry: house breaks were out of control. The department responded, calling on resources from the patrol and detective division, and it worked. Burglaries dropped significantly in 2016, to 198.

“We couldn’t even put our finger on exactly which arrest really stopped the bleeding,” Donnelly said. “Significant arrests were made, but there’s always, ‘Who’s in jail, who’s coming out?'”

The truth is, cops say they know which groups or individuals are committing the majority of home and motor vehicle break-ins, and they track when the thieves are about to be released from prison.

“That’s where the frustration lies … the same names keep coming up,” Donnelly said. “It’s not always considered to be a big crime, they broke into a house, they committed a larceny; they don’t do too much time in jail normally.”

The March 30 arrests of the two thieves turned out to have a dramatic effect on burglaries in the area. Both suspects – one a juvenile – have been in custody since the bust.

“This was like the last of the four people that we had our eye on,” Donnelly said. “As far as the impact goes, we see it almost immediately; the next week in that area there were zero breaks.”

Donnelly said it would have been “embarrassing” if police failed to apprehend the suspects that day because the homeowner provided “so much information.”

“This is real time, she’s on her phone,” Donnelly said. “Police love cameras because they can act as a deterrent as well as use for identification.”

Donnelly said investigators generally see thieves seeking out items they can make off with quickly, like small electronics. One of the burglars in the March 30 break pocketed an old iPhone the homeowner used to play music, according to the arrest report.

“I don’t have much of value,” she said, adding she hopes the word will get out and her house will be left alone.

But the crime was jarring and made her think harder about whether to move out of the city.

“I am definitely thinking about it more seriously now,” she said. “I think I want to go into an old mill building or condo building that has staff and is more secure.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook