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The eyes of the law are everywhere, thanks to video

Homeowners use motiactivated recording cameras video any issues outside their homes.  February 15 2013  | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

Homeowners use motion activated recording cameras to video any issues outside their homes. February 15, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:47AM



Greg Stewart was sick and tired of having his Elgin family’s cars burglarized. So he took matters into his own hands.

The break-ins, his sister Stephanie remembered, started last August or September when somebody entered her unlocked minivan and took the DVD player she had bought for her 3-year-old daughter, Lilyan. Then other members of the family began to notice that loose change they had left in their unlocked cars was missing the next morning. They spoke to their neighbors along Joseph Court, on Elgin‘s west side, and learned that they had noticed similar thefts.

So Greg, a 27-year-old employee of the nearby Larkin Avenue Jewel-Osco store, set up three small motion-activated video cameras on the front of their home, connected to a video recorder inside their garage. And a crime wave was stopped.

***

The eyes of the law are very often upon us.

The video surveillance camera now ranks along with fingerprint identification, DNA analysis and high-pressure interrogation as the most powerful weapons in the police detective’s quiver. In fact, better than any of those other three, the video recording comes closest to actually going back in time and showing exactly what happened when the crime took place.

Seeing all

More and more, incident reports filed by police officers refer to surveillance cameras. Nearly every major store has them mounted in the ceiling or walls; and even though a store security officer may have seen that thief slip a bottle of Jack Daniels into her purse, a surveillance recording probably also showed her doing that. Hard to argue down in front of a jury.

That driver may have thought he was getting away when he pumped $60 worth of unleaded into his Jeep, then drove off without paying. But the gas station likely had a video recording showing just what he looked like and possibly even his license plate number.

The drug addict sneaking through the grocery store parking lot, looking for unlocked car doors, thinks nobody sees him. But chances are that the store has surveillance cameras recording his every move.

Wrenching crime

Sometimes such cameras are owned by the police.

For example, Elgin Water Department officials were pretty sure a homeowner in well-heeled Tall Oaks subdivision on Elgin’s far west side was stealing from them. He had stopped paying his water bill, so a city crew went out to his house and turned off his water service at the street, using a special wrench that controls the “Buffalo box” valve underneath his front lawn.

But somehow the water service didn’t seem to be interrupted after all.

Finally, a police detective dressed as a construction worker went out to the neighborhood, climbed a utility pole near the home and installed a video surveillance camera aimed at the man’s front yard.

When officers came back to look at what the camera had recorded, they saw what amounted to home movies of the homeowner, carrying his own Buffalo-box wrench, turning the valve back open. It also showed him walking up to the utility pole and looking at that video camera with a curious expression.

An arrest was issued last week for the homeowner.

Police in Chicago and a number of other larger cities, meanwhile, have been using pole-mounted cameras at strategic locations in recent years to monitor for criminal activity.

Nabbing burglar

Once in awhile, the video is even provided by a private individual such as the Stewart family. After the video cameras were installed in December, Stephanie Stewart said, her father and brother stayed up for three nights, hoping to catch the Joseph Court car burglar in the act. When the man struck, they planned to rush out, confront him and hold him until police could arrive.

But on the third night, Greg went to the bathroom, came back and saw on the recording that in the few minutes while he had been away, a man had ridden up on a bicycle and looked into all three of the family’s cars

Later, while Greg was working at Jewel, he heard that a seedy-looking man had been coming in early in the morning and feeding $30 or $40 worth of coins into the store’s coins-to-currency machine. Video surveillance footage showed it was the same man who had struck the Stewart cars.

Banks reported that debit cards stolen during two other car burglaries in the neighborhood had been used to buy fast food at the McDonald’s restaurant on Larkin. McDonald’s, too, had videos showing what that person looked like.

Finally, Elgin Police Detective David Baumgartner recognized the man in these videos as 48-year-old Charles McCammon of Elgin, whom police describe as a drug addict and habitual criminal. He had been caught red-handed, albeit electronically. McCammon is now in the Kane County jail, awaiting trial on burglary and unlawful-use-of-a-bank-card charges related to five car burglaries. Police believe he actually committed many more.

Privately owned

Police-owned cameras also have been used in drug investigations. Several years ago, Elgin detectives set up a camera inside what was then The Courier-News building at 300 Lake St. in Elgin, looking out toward a suspected “drug house” a half-block away.

Twenty-four hours a day, it recorded each customer who stopped there to buy cocaine or marijuana. A similar camera was set up inside an Elgin nursing hone, looking out toward a parking lot where drug transactions were believed to be taking place.

But usually, the camera is owned and operated by a private business. It may be mainly intended to stop shoplifting or gasoline “drive-offs.” But it may end up recording something worse that’s beyond the business’s property but still within eyeshot.

“In the old days, when a crime was committed, we’d do a canvass of the neighborhood, knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking if anybody had seen anything,” said Cmdr. Tim Bosshart of the Carpentersville Police Department. “We still do that. But now the first question the officer asks himself is, ‘Is there a surveillance camera around here that may have recorded what took place?’ ”

Prelude to murder

In 2009, a woman was shot to death while driving along Raymond Street in Elgin because gangbangers in another car mistook her car for one that contained rival gang members. When the several young men in the shooters’ car disagreed about who actually had pulled the trigger, prosecutors turned to the surveillance footage recorded at a convenience store across the street from a gas station on Bluff City Boulevard where the rival gang members had first confronted each other.

As shown to jurors at last year’s trial of one of the accused killers, the footage shows the soon-to-be assassins buying snack food inside the store. Then a camera aimed at the store’s parking area shows the teens getting into their car. By showing which door in the car each one entered, it belied the defendant’s claim that he had been sitting on the left side of the car, where he could not have been able to lean out the window and fire the fatal shot. He was convicted of first-degree murder.

When 6-year-old Eric Galarza Jr. was shot to death in another gang-motivated shooting on Elgin’s northeast side in 2011, a gang member who reportedly had a beef against the child’s father was charged with the murder. One bit of evidence against the accused killer, prosecutors revealed, is a photo recorded by an Illinois Tollway camera. It shows a car owned by the accused killer’s father going through the entrance ramp from Route 25 onto I-90 minutes after the shooting — allegedly on its way to a Schaumburg parking lot where the accused shooter passed the murder weapon to a girlfriend, police said.

Bosshart said the new owner of the crime-plagued Foxview Apartments in Carpentersville reinforced that complex’s camera system when he took over a few years ago. “Now the victims of crimes there will tell us, ‘Look at the video,’ ” Bosshart said.

Sometimes, cameras will even come courtesy of the crooks.

“Years ago, a guy had a video camera installed in his apartment because he was selling drugs and anticipated that he might be robbed,” Bosshart recalls. “He was robbed and he reported it to us. When we reviewed the video, it had no usable picture on it. But the audio of the robbery going down greatly strengthened our case. Here was a drug dealer whose testimony had zero credibility. But when you could hear the robbery going on, that was credible evidence.”

Unfortunately, said Elgin Police Cmdr. Glenn Theriault, many video systems installed by well-meaning businesses end up being misaimed or misadjusted, and therefore useless in the wake of a crime. So starting in June, Elgin police will offer how-to classes to show local businesspeople how to most effectively use video surveillance.



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