Coral Gables

Crime continues to concern Coral Gables residents

Call it the case of the Senior Citizen Burglar but this isn’t a remake of the old George Burns crime caper, Going in Style.

For some residents in Coral Gables, there’s nothing funny about this situation.

A man, who appears to be in his 60s, wearing a nondescript light-colored cap, collared shirt and walking with a cane, is seen on surveillance videoat an apartment complex in Coral Gables as he peers through the front glass doors.

The Coral Gables Police Department released the images this week in the hopes of catching the man who is suspected of being involved in a number of apartment burglaries in multi-story buildings in the city. Officers believe he gains entry to the apartments and, once inside, removes jewelry and other items.

In February, Andrea Bonggi, 40, came home from her administrative job in Doral and noticed her door frame had been pried. She peered inside briefly, flicked on the lights, and called police. “They were there in three minutes, so that was fantastic service from the police,” Bonggi said. “But this man was captured on camera on several buildings.”

Her loss: About $10,000 in jewelry, a Rolex watch, carry-on baggage, sweaters, mini skirts and a coat, plus $1,500 in damages to her front door.

The thief also used a tool, perhaps a crowbar, to break into another fifth floor apartment but that unit was vacant.

Bonggi believes the burglar knew the pass code to the Madeira Avenue building after she saw the surveillance video.

“You can see him put the pass code in, and then you can see him with baggage inside, and he had tools to open the front door,” she said Wednesday.

Bonggi, a pharmacist in her native Argentina, felt her sense of security was also taken with her property.

Now, I feel good, but after the situation, I was very worried and afraid. I had to put more security at the door.”

Along with the new door brace, she also changed her scheduled so as to avoid coming home after dark and she’s engaging more with her neighbors as they watch out for one another.

Crime, and the perception that Coral Gables is awash in a crime wave, has persisted for months.

“I want to be clear, there is no crime wave in Coral Gables; this is a very safe city,” said acting police chief Scott Masington in an email to The Miami Herald Tuesday. “Although Coral Gables is very safe and we’d like to eliminate all crimes, that’s not realistic anywhere.”

During the recent mayoral race that pit Ralph Cabrera, who served 12 years as a Gables commissioner, against incumbent Mayor Jim Cason, crime became one of the focal points of the race. Cabrera ran a Spanish radio ad that said crime was on the rise in Coral Gables and compared unfavorably with that of Opa-locka, a much smaller city of about 16,000 residents that had 1,537 total offenses in 2012, including two murders.

These numbers compared to 1,966 incidents in the Gables, with no murders. But those statistics were over a 19-month period from May 2011 through February 2013, compared to 12 months for Opa-locka. Coral Gables also is three times the size of Opa-locka, with about 48,000 residents. Cason, who was handily re-elected, cited figures from the Coral Gables Police Department that noted crime had declined by 1.5 percent in 2012.

From January to April 2013, the police department recorded 98 burglaries, compared with 123 for the same period a year ago.

In December, Cabrera and then commissioner Maria Anderson requested that Masington appear before the commission to discuss crime in the city. Both commissioners said, at the time, that residents had approached them in unprecedented numbers to express concern over a series of home and auto break-ins.

“People are scared,” Anderson said.

Indeed, last month a group of residents who live on Santa Maria, a street that bisects the Riviera Golf Course running from Bird Road to Blue Road, held a meeting with city officials, including City Manager Pat Salerno and Masington, to discuss several burglaries that have occurred there in the last year. They also noted there were break-ins at homes or apartments on neighboring streets of Campo Sano, Mendavia, Venera, San Remo and San Amaro. These crimes, so far, have netted primarily jewelry and other valuables.

“We didn’t want to publicize this or politicize this as it was a campaign issue,” said Charlie George, whose Santa Maria home was broken into last year.

“People are angry and frustrated, no question,” George said — and this was the message delivered to the city officials and police department. “We told them we know they are trying, but it’s continuing. Property crimes can develop into something more serious and somebody could get hurt.”

In January, at the Biltmore Hotel, thieves heisted a safe filled with $15,000 at 4 a.m.. Surveillance video showed three armed men bursting inside the historic hotel’s security office and startling an officer who was seated at a desk while on duty. One of the men, whose face was obscured by a red covering, held a gun to the security officer, ordered him to the floor, and stole his iPhone, along with the safe. The three men came and went through the hotel’s employees-only, rear loading area. The three escaped in a brown Nissan Maxima. No one was hurt.

In March, there were purse snatchings of elderly women walking on Giralda Avenue and Le Jeune Road, north of Miracle Mile. In the latter incident, a tourist suffered cuts and bruises when she resisted. An arrest was made in the Giralda snatching.

Another type of crime that has residents concerned involves the theft of tires and rims from cars. When owners return to their cars in their driveways, they find the vehicles up on blocks. From October through December last year, there were 17 of these thefts. From January through April of this year, there were 15 such incidents.

Fed up, the Santa Maria residents called for the meeting at the Riviera Country Club, which was not a formal crime watch meeting.

“We nagged the living hell out of them that there are, in fact, actual crimes,” George said. “Citywide it may be down, but it’s become fairly acute in our immediate neighborhood. This got their attention. Police improved patrolling and surveillance and communications in the neighborhood. It’s been quite intense over the last several weeks. We see police cars every day and unmarked vehicles we know are police officers.”

The residents also aren’t relying solely on the police. They are also getting by with a little help from technology.

“I can tell you, the women in this neighborhood have become very vigilant with their cell phone cameras and an email distribution list,” George said. “They call police immediately and they are taking photos and videos and send them out. We’ve got quite a communications system going.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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