Dozens of Manatee, Sarasota break-ins could be connected, sheriff's office says

jbartolone@bradenton.comNovember 20, 2013 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Thomas Leavey was on vacation in Paris when he got the call: His Lakewood Ranch Golf & Country Club home had been broken into.

"I always considered it a safe neighborhood," said Leavey, one of the board members for Lakewood Ranch's Community Development District 5.

A neighbor who had been checking in on Leavey's home in the upscale Country Club neighborhood found that someone had broken into it around Nov. 7 during his 10-day trip, stealing a sizeable amount of jewelry.

And Leavey isn't alone -- the Manatee County Sheriff's Office says it's investigating

30 similar home burglaries since April, including nine recent break-ins in East Manatee, from Heritage Harbour to Greenfield Plantation, plus a few dozen more in Sarasota County.

All of the burglaries seem to follow a similar pattern, said Capt. Lorenzo Waiters, who oversees a sheriff's office district that includes Lakewood Ranch, Ellenton, Palmetto and Myakka City. Most of the burglaries happen at night. In about 90 percent of them, residents aren't at home -- they've been gone anywhere from a weekend to a month or two, or sometimes even less time than that. The burglars are gaining entry to the home through rear sliding doors -- authorities declined to speak on the record in much detail about their method -- but in all the cases it's clear what they're after.

"They already know what they want: Jewelry, TVs, laptop computers and iPads," Waiters said. "That's what they want."

Waiters and his deputies are working in conjunction with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office to investigate a rash of the break-ins along the Interstate 75 corridor in both counties, where burglars have easy access to a getaway route. Authorities are looking at DNA evidence, Waiters said, and have identified potential suspects in the burglaries but aren't ready to release more information or make arrests yet.

"We are not 'CSI' where we get results in 45 minutes with commercials," Waiters said.

In some cases, the burglars have been bolder, breaking into homes in daylight or while residents are gone for just a few hours. In one, a couple went out to dinner around 5 or 6 p.m. and came back at 11 to find they'd been burglarized. At a break-in Friday at Greenfield Plantation, someone gained entry to a home while the homeowners were out to lunch.

A recent attempt at a home on Orchid Island Place in the Country Club was foiled when an alarm was tripped, forcing the burglars to leave empty handed. Sheriff's deputies went door-to-door there to about 50 homes in an attempt to identify patterns or find out if neighbors saw anything.

The sheriff's office on Tuesday shared tips on preventing the break-ins before a joint meeting of three of Lakewood Ranch's governing districts that have been victimized recently. First and foremost: Be vigilant, especially if you or your neighbors are planning to be out of town. If anyone sees anything out of the ordinary, "they need to call the police," said Lt. William Vitaioli, who's worked several of the break-ins in East Manatee.

Residents can call the sheriff's office at 745-3011 and dial extension 1549 to reach the complaint desk for non-emergencies. Other tips if you or your neighbors will be out of town: Don't post anything about it on social media or give information to solicitors. And of course, home security systems help, too.

"I know it's sad that we have to fortify our homes, but it's just that way," Waiters said.

Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.

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