An unwitting witness to a crime

CRIME WATCH | DONNA GILLESPIE

I was walking to the Walgreens at Fillmore and Bush when I heard running footsteps behind me. It was 4:25 in the afternoon on the Fourth of July.

I turned to see a group of young people, perhaps 20 or more, bolting up the hill. As they surged past me, one knocked me aside and I fell against the building. No one paused, though one of the bunch glanced back at me with an almost apologetic look. Then the group tacked left in a flock and burst into Walgreens. I entered right behind them.

Inside, it seemed a scene from a movie. The kids were working the hair and dental products, toppling merchandise from the shelves into cloth bags, laughing and moving quickly down the aisle. The more expensive items were out of their reach, locked up behind clear plastic shields. The thieves seemed content to load up on the cheaper merchandise.

They ranged in age from about 10 to 25. The youngest boy in the bunch took the sentry’s position by the front door. He grinned at the employees behind the registers, picked through items a shopper had left behind in a returned basket, then tossed them back. Apparently they were not worth stealing.

Walgreens employees were taking it all in stride. Two were calmly filming the melee on their phones. After about three minutes, the youths swept out in a mass, leaving behind heaps of fallen merchandise in the aisle for store employees to pick up and put back on the shelves. A woman behind a register saw my incredulous look and said: “This happens all the time. The police will come, but not right away.”

I asked her what would happen then. “They’ll say they can’t do anything,” she said.

Someone had called 911 the moment the young thieves had swarmed into the store. I hung around for about 15 minutes afterward, dazedly carrying out a haphazard mix of finishing my shopping and helping clean up. As the editor responsible for compiling the monthly Crime Watch report in the New Fillmore, I was slowly processing the fact that I had been swept up in one of my own crime reports.

No officers had yet arrived. Employees had left their tasks to clean up the mess. The line at the registers grew longer.

A new top cop

CRIME WATCH | CHRIS BARNETT

The new commanding officer at SFPD’s Northern Station, Captain Joseph Engler, is a fifth-generation San Franciscan and a fourth-generation cop who has known the neighborhood since day one. He was born at Presbyterian Hospital on Webster, now California Pacific Medical Center. His first job was as a business banker at Wells Fargo’s Fillmore branch. And today, after 25 years on the force, he’s at the helm of the 140-person Northern Station, policing an area with the second highest felony crime rate in the city.

Capt. Joseph Engler

Engler has jumped right in. He says he’s been meeting with two or three community groups a day. “I love the level of engagement that our community brings with it,” he says.

Huge concern: car break-ins. D.A. George Gascon asked City Hall for $1 million to staff a team to crack down on auto burglaries and beef up arrests of serial offenders. Engler says his marching orders are: “Be out of the cars, on the block, visible, talking to folks, solving the little problems on the spot, not driving by them.”

His policing philosophy is more than a show of force. “We have an excellent undercover unit at Northern,” Engler says. “We know where the public cameras are. Now we want to know where the privately owned and maintained cameras are. We’ll use facial recognition technology and if we can read license plates, we can identify people, do stops on vehicles, work criminals coming into the city.”

Engler is aiming to form a local coalition of residents, private individuals, merchants and other local businesspeople to step up, get involved and communicate. “We need to get everyone involved in the solution,” he says. “We’ve got some real pros here at the station and they’re really committed. I’m just joining the fight.”

Quick end to a stickup at Sterling Bank

The Sterling Bank branch at Fillmore and Bush.

CRIME WATCH | DONNA GILLESPIE

Sterling Bank at 1900 Fillmore was the target of an alarming, if ultimately unsuccessful, robbery attempt on January 16. It happened at 4:50 p.m., just before closing time.

Some inside the bank were aware of a man in a blue rain poncho pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of the small, glassed-wrapped bank, but at first no one paid much attention. Then the man entered the bank, confronting manager James Rensch. Covering his face with one hand and wielding a gun with the other, the robber told Rensch: “Give me all your cash or I’ll shoot.”

In accordance with bank instructions, “I complied,” said a clearly shaken Rensch. He said the man was in the bank for a tense three minutes before he fled with the cash.

Rensch called 911, and two plainclothes policemen, along with beat cop Gordon Wong, were nearby. The plainclothes officers chased the suspect up Bush Street and caught him just past Webster. The apprehension was witnessed by the bank’s neighbor, HiHo Silver shop owner Victoria Dunham, who was leaving her flat as the arrest unfolded outside her front door.

Police dispatch had given the officers a description of the man, but during his short flight he had managed to shed his clothes and don new ones. Although the suspect was arrested, the police investigation is still ongoing and the FBI is now involved.

Fillmore gets new beat cops

Officers Jason Castro (left) and Gordon Wong (right) with Dosa owner Emily Mitra.

Officers Jason Castro (left) and Gordon Wong (right) with Dosa owner Emily Mitra.

AFTER REPORTS OF an increasing number of grab-and-run thefts — and calls for help — from Fillmore’s fashion boutiques and other shops, the SFPD debuted a two-officer uniformed foot patrol on September 9.

Known as “Beat 44,” it stretches from Geary Boulevard north to Jackson Street. Officers Gordon Wong and Jason Castro will walk the beat from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

EARLIER: “Thieves put a target on Fillmore

Thieves put a target on Fillmore

Fillmoresign

By CHRIS BARNETT

A surge in daring grab-and-run thefts is plaguing Fillmore Street merchants.

Salespeople at upscale fashion boutiques on upper Fillmore say shoplifting has now morphed into blatant thievery and that some fear for their personal safety. Merchants report numerous instances — more than half a dozen in August alone — in which people case a store, wait until staffers are distracted, then scoop up merchandise and dash out.

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Maybe I loved my car too much?

vic

FIRST PERSON  |  VICTORIA DUNHAM

I whined most of the day — well, at least from 9 a.m. on, when my downstairs neighbor called and said: “I have bad news. You know that loud crash you heard last night?”

I had heard a big crash at around 3 a.m., then a car alarm going off — typical Bush Street sounds. But then the downstairs door opened and closed, which was only slightly odd because Uncle Andy was here and I knew he heard the same sound that woke me up — and being the car guy he is, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that he might go out to investigate things, even though it was 3 in the morning.

But it wasn’t just any car the jerk hit. It was my car. After sideswiping the car parked behind me, the driver hit the back of my car dead-on without braking. Andy figures he was going around 40 to 50 miles an hour.

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Dog mauling conviction affirmed again

The attack occurred on the sixth floor of the apartment building at Fillmore and Pacific.

CRIME | BARBARA KATE REPA

A federal appellate court has denied the latest challenge to a second-degree murder conviction in a case that rocked the neighborhood 15 years ago when a horrific attack by two large dogs in a Pacific Avenue apartment building left one local resident dead and landed two others in prison.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on February 3 affirmed a lower federal court’s denial of habeas corpus relief for Marjorie Knoller, a former neighborhood resident.

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Conversation with a cop

CRIME WATCH | CHRIS BARNETT

Lt. Ed Del Carlo, all 6 feet 6 inches of him, rises out of his chair in a gritty windowless office inside the fortress-like Northern Station on Fillmore Street and extends a welcoming hand the size of a catcher’s mitt. In his other hand are 32 police reports from the day before. The 25-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department doesn’t try to whitewash the situation: Crime is mushrooming citywide — and it’s worse in the Fillmore.

Lt. Ed Del Carlo

Lt. Ed Del Carlo

“The big growth trend is property crime. But no longer is it only drug dealing addicts who break into cars to steal a laptop, a smart phone, an iPad or any electronic device they can fence within minutes at 7th and Market,” he says. “We’re seeing more sophisticated, more violent criminals who’re coming in from the East Bay, Sacramento, the Central Valley and the Peninsula because they know if they get arrested, chances are they won’t do any jail or prison time.”

The neighborhood crime surge is affecting both residents and retailers, and criminals are more brazen. This year, thieves drove a stolen car through the front glass  door of the Marc Jacobs fashion boutique at Fillmore and Sacramento around 4 a.m., looted its merchandise and were gone in an estimated five minutes. And twice this year, the glass door of the MAC makeup shop on Fillmore near Pine was shattered in the early morning hours and the shelves were cleaned of expensive skin creams. In the summer, thieves smashed the glass front door of Dino and Santino’s restaurant at Fillmore and California and carted off the cash register.

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A plague of smash and grab

CRIME WATCH | Chris Barnett

The familiar sight of shattered glass in the gutter is hard evidence of a crime that plagues local residents, visitors and shoppers alike. Anyone with a car is a potential target. Smash-and-grab thieves don’t care if it’s a Mini Cooper or a Maserati.

You’d never know it from walking the blocks around Fillmore Street, but according to police statistics, auto burglaries are actually down 7 percent from a year ago in the Northern District, which includes much of the neighborhood. Captain Ann Mannix reels off the local numbers: 1,037 vehicle bust-ins for the first eight months of this year, compared to 1,132 during the same period last year.

Citywide, auto break-ins are up 6 percent — including the Park District, which covers most of the neighborhood west of Steiner Street.

While the auto burglary figures from the police department may indicate trends, they are not remotely comprehensive, since many — perhaps most — of those who suffer a loss don’t file a police report.
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