Noe Valley Voice June 2007

Noe Merchants Stay on Alert to Foil Crime

By Jan Goben

As Noe Valley merchants struggle to deal with break-ins and burglaries during a time of reduced police presence in the neighborhood, they have decided to take matters into their own hands.

"We have a group, and we're starting to meet once a month," says Gwen Sanderson, owner of Video Wave on Castro Street and secretary for the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association.

When the merchants gather, she says, they trade stories of what they've experienced and heard, and they exchange phone numbers and e-mail addresses, so that they can alert the group, as well as the police, when there's trouble. They also are holding meetings with local police and asking them to report on their progress in solving crimes.

While it's hard to peg it specifically to the merchants' heightened involvement, two recent arrests in the area seem to be fueled at least in part by calls from merchants and neighbors to local police.

In one case, officers followed a car that was stolen in a residential burglary and captured a burglar who confessed to numerous stolen cars, according to a May report to the Noe Valley Merchants Association by Captain John Goldberg of Mission Station.

"Plainclothes officers from Mission watched the vehicle and took a suspect into custody as he entered it," reads Goldberg's report. "During an interview with Inspector [Joseph] Nannery, of the burglary detail, the suspect admitted to a series of burglaries in the Noe Valley area. He stated that he found garages with 'touch pad,' keyless entries and used those to enter the garage and steal the vehicles. The suspect has admitted to having stolen at least 15 vehicles, and the investigation is ongoing."

In another case, DNA evidence led police to arrest Tracy Nelson, 49, the suspect in a series of burglaries in the neighborhood. A press release from the Police Department explains that DNA evidence was found at the scene of a residential burglary on July 27, 2006. "The victims, two San Francisco clothing designers, had several of their designs stolen," reads the press release. Searching for the stolen items, the two designers scoured local secondhand shops and discovered some of their clothing with their unique designs.

"While the two victims were explaining to the shop employees that these particular items had been stolen from them, the suspect telephoned the shop to offer more clothing for sale," the press release continues. "The clerk relayed this to the victims, who contacted police. When Nelson showed up at the shop, police arrested him."

Because the DNA evidence had not yet been processed, Nelson was released and went on to commit more residential burglaries. On Nov. 28, he burglarized a home, was followed by his victims and arrested by police. At that point, an analysis of the July DNA evidence led to Nelson being charged with three counts of first-degree burglary.

In December and January, Noe Valley merchants faced a series of front-door break-ins at restaurants and stores that left them on alert. And, although crime is always a concern for merchants, the anxieties multiplied after the tragic death in April of John Avery, 57, a resident of 20th Street who was hit by thief fleeing in his pickup truck at the corner of Jersey and Church streets. The man had taken between $5,000 and $10,000 worth of photography equipment from Ritz Camera, and was fleeing police, who had been called to the scene. Avery, a cab driver and the father of two grown children, died at the scene. (See Voice, May 2007.)

In response to these incidents, Sanderson and other merchants began to regularly report their suspicions to police. "I started talking to Inspector Nannery. He grew up here--he really, really cared."

Sanderson says she had noticed a burglar casing her store and asking the salespeople if they were going to be open late. Once she informed Nannery of the details, "I heard from him every few days. All of a sudden, police officers started dropping in on me."

There are now two undercover officers in Noe Valley, Sanderson says, and crime seems to be a little more under control.

The merchants also have become more assertive, says former association president Carol Yenne, who owns Small Frys children's clothing store on 24th Street near Castro. Yenne remembers five years ago when a teenage tagger painted "ROC" on business after business and was prosecuted and spent time in Juvenile Hall. When he was released and returned to the neighborhood a few years later, at age 18 or 19, he continued painting graffiti on Noe Valley businesses and all over James Lick Middle School. The next time he was caught, says Yenne, five local merchants showed up for his trial. "We stood up in the court hearing and told the judge, 'We are all victims.'"

Bail was upped from the $5,000 that was set for his previous arrest to $45,000, Yenne says, but "ROC" left town. "He skipped bail, but at least he's not here."

She and the other merchants who are meeting monthly hope they can band together to take similar action in the future.

"If the merchants were made aware of when certain criminals were showing up in court, we could have an effect on the process," says Yenne. "If these people can make a point to the judge of what the impact is of not having a car--they couldn't get their kid to school, they couldn't get to work--then maybe the thief wouldn't be back on the streets so soon."

Seven years ago, there were two beat cops patrolling 24th Street on a daily basis, and the merchants say they could talk to these officers, discuss their concerns and find out information that the police knew--about who was in jail, who was out, who hadn't been heard from.

Because of city budget cuts, realigned priorities, or more urgent needs in other neighborhoods, the presence of the beat cops, those who roam the neighborhood on foot or bicycle, day in and day out, has decreased over the years. It went down to one full-time officer and a half-time position assigned to the neighborhood each day, then down to one officer, and today, none, says Yenne. That's a trend the local shop owners hope to reverse.

There may be a silver lining to last winter's crime spree. "I started talking to my neighbors. That was the best benefit of all this," says Sanderson.