Vehicle burglaries were the most frequently reported crime in Ponte Vedra last year, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said, with 133 reported auto burglaries in 2016.
“That’s the biggest thing we deal with,” said Commander Brian Harrington, who leads SJSO’s northeast district ranging from Ponte Vedra to St. Augustine. “I refer to it as a ‘transient crime’ because it’s people that come in a lot of the times.”
Recent residential development in Ponte Vedra has increased traffic coming in and out of the area, Harrington said, and encouraged less desirable visitors to commit vehicle burglaries, compared to past years when locals were mostly responsible.
“Because the coming and going is becoming so busy with the new roads and new communities, you’re seeing a lot of different people coming in,” said Harrington. “That’s why I use the term ‘transient crime,’ because they’re people that commute through or commute in that do it. They don’t stay in their home area and do these things.”
Most of the time, Harrington said, the culprits are capitalizing on unlocked cars in subdivisions.
“Probably 80 to 90 percent of the time, the trend now is for them to find an unlocked car,” he said. “Very rarely do we have windows smashed in.”
When that does occur, he added, it’s likely because the suspect is seizing upon a “target of opportunity,” such as a purse or wallet sitting in plain view in the car. Of the 13 stolen vehicles reported in Ponte Vedra in 2016, every one that was recovered was taken with the keys in the car. Many of those recovered were found in other locations, including Jacksonville’s Northside, Atlantic Beach and even south into parts of Flagler County.
Ponte Vedra resident Donna Ritch can attest to these trends: Someone broke into her unlocked car on Christmas Eve morning and stole a number of holiday gifts. Her advice for others in Ponte Vedra is simple.
“Always make sure your car is locked before you go to bed,” said Ritch, who was surprised the crime happened in the first place due to the general safety of Ponte Vedra.
Nearly the same situation happened to Ponte Vedra resident Dennis Berkholtz during the holidays. He woke up one morning to find his car ransacked and his items strewn along the front seats. He said this incident can happen anywhere, and he’s just thankful it wasn’t any worse.
“I think it’s naïve of myself not to lock the car door,” said Berkholtz. “I just suggest people take the proper precautions of locking up their houses and cars.”
In addition, Harrington advises residents to report every incident to the authorities, even if a similar incident occurred within that respective neighborhood and was already reported.
“It is crucial that people let us know what’s going on in their area so we can combat it,” he said.
In response to recently reported car burglaries, Harrington organized a task force that increased the number of nighttime patrols from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, focused on targeting potential culprits of these crimes. The effort helped in identifying a few suspects, he said.
SJSO also recommends that residents be aware of their surroundings. Harrington said the use of home video surveillance is already helping people be more vigilant.
“A lot of people are getting video cameras and putting them in their house and videoing the front of their house or cars,” he said. “That’s giving us a lot of good information.”
In addition to video surveillance footage, the sheriff’s office is receiving helpful information from the public via social media. Harrington said this overall exchange of information is proof of the healthy relationship that exists between the sheriff’s office and public, and aids in tracking down the suspects responsible for these car burglaries.
“We get so much help now from the public,” he said. “People are more open to giving us information. People call us more when they see people walking in the neighborhoods, and that helps. I like to think locally we have a very good relationship with the community.”