2017-05-17 / Front Page

Increase in armed robberies in county raises alarm

BY CINDY CENTOFANTI
989-269-9918 • ccentofanti@mihomepaper.com

Sanilac County residents remember a time where no one had to lock their vehicles to run into the store to get a gallon of milk or to lock their homes when it was time to head out for work. There used to be a sense of trust in the community.

Gone are those days.

Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicate

Michigan’s violent and property crime rates are decreasing, but according to the Sanilac County Sheriff’s Office, the crime rate for armed or aggressive robbery rose from one in 2015 to seven in 2016, a 600 percent jump.

According to Sheriff Garry Biniecki, an average rate for armed robberies is expected to be about one or two per year.

Sanilac County is already facing higher than average rates of armed robberies in 2017.

“There has been a significant jump.” Biniecki said.

The rates for the present year are already on the rise, with two recent incidents occurring only 16 days apart.

The most recent occurrence happened on Thurs., April 20, when Valero, a gas station and convenience store in Lexington, was robbed at gun point for the second time in two weeks.

Valero was previously targeted on Tues., April 4. In both incidents, witnesses reported a handgun was used.

The incidents have raised alarm in the community, and steps have been taken by Lexington officials to contract with the sheriff department for patrols that will supplement the local police department.

So, the question remains, why has the rural community become a target for serious crime?

Sheriff Department Detective/Sgt. Nathan Smith said that the rural landscape makes committing violent crimes a less risky venture for crooks seeking a quick dollar.

“Look at how many escape routes a person has coming into an area such as ours,” Smith said. “That’s compared to a bigger city, where people are all over the place.”

Sanilac County consists of 962 square miles, and on any given day there are only two law enforcement agencies – sheriff and Michigan State Police – with countywide patrols, along with local police coverage in Brown City, Croswell, Deckerville, Lexington, Peck, Marlette, Port Sanilac and Sandusky.

‘Biniecki recalled a string of armed bank robberies in Michigan in 2013 that involved a bank in Brown City.

“During the day of the Brown City bank robbery, we were having countywide training in Sandusky,” Biniecki said. “Just about every police unit, including Brown City Police Department was here when it happened.”

Jack Kaiser was the suspect for not only the Brown City bank, but for two other banks as well. As a result, multiple polices agencies from other counties were working together on the case.

Kaiser fled to Alpharetta, Georgia. When law enforcement moved in to make the arrest, he fatally shot himself.

Biniecki said there have been no deaths as a result from an armed robbery in Sanilac County. He said that the opportunity for someone to be harmed has certainly presented itself many times, but the victims have cooperated with their assailants.

“I think there is more chance of injury in a larger city.” He said.

He also added nothing a thief can take is worth risking a victim’s life.

“Just give up the money and be the best witness you can be,” Biniecki said. “In the instance that you may see someone who is not cooperating, then you might see an injury that could occur.”

Smith added that in most crimes involving a handgun, it is used only to instill fear into the victim.

Money is the most common item stolen, but it’s not the only valuable crooks seek.

“We had an incident last year where a combination of both money and drugs were involved,” Smith added.

That armed robbery occurred on Nov 11, 2016, in Minden Township, during which 25-pounds of medical marijuana and an undisclosed amount of cash were stolen.

The investigation also revealed that one of the “victims” held at gunpoint was actually in cahoots with the gunmen. The man posed as the victim’s friend, and then used his access to coordinate the robbery with the three suspects outside, according to the sheriff’s office.

Biniecki said in incidents such as the Minden Township armed robbery, it is not uncommon for the victims and suspects to have some sort of a prior relationship.

Smith also added most people involved in those types of incidents run in the same social clique.

“It is important to limit your contact and exposure,” Biniecki said.

Another surprising risk is hosting a yard sale.

“All it takes is someone asking to come in and use your bathroom,” Biniecki said. “People being so trusting will open their doors and let the people right in, which puts them at a much higher risk of being susceptible to robberies.”

Biniecki added there have also been cases when a criminal posing as a customer returns to steal items.

Smith said home invasions are lesser targets for an armed robber. Instead, he said a gas station, bank or local convenience store has a much higher chance of falling prey.

As long as certain precautions are taken, armed robberies within homes are preventable, which is one perk of living in a rural community.

Biniecki shed light on the crime prevention for such small towns by referencing to the Village of Forestville.

Biniecki said the Village of Forestville has for years maintained one of the county’s lowest crime rates.

“I use them as my shining light because you don’t pull into a driveway without someone seeing your vehicle and seeing it and saying ‘That’s not Mary’s car, what’s that doing there?’ to the point that they will call and report a suspicious vehicle there,” he said.

The population of Forestville was 136 in the 2010 census. Since the census is conducted at intervals of 10 years, the town now has an estimated population of 129.

The tiny population makes it easier for neighbors to watch out for each other.

“People know their neighbors in smaller communities, and they know when something suspicious is up,” Biniecki said. “As law enforcement, we want nosey neighbors because they help drive the crime down.”

In the 2010 Sanilac County Demographics, the robbery risk was at an all-time low listed under the crime rates and statistics report – 97 percent below the average indicating that there was no need for precautionary steps.

Based on trends in statistics collected annually by the Sanilac County Sheriff’s Office, Biniecki expects another increase in armed or aggressive robberies this year.

“I don’t doubt that it’s going to be four or five at the very least,” he said.

Biniecki also included he has noticed the heroin and amphetamine usage has been “through the roof”.

More drug use means more crime, he added.

There was a notable increase of larcenies from 2016 to 2017, 23 percent countywide.

“I think we are only going to continue to see more and more of it as we continue to move forward,” Biniecki said.

With four reported armed robberies occurring since last May, including a drug-related robbery in Fremont Township where the victim’s ear was sliced in half, Biniecki said it’s important for businesses and residents to increase their safety.

“We already take action and preventative action by alerting other stores or banks in the area,” Biniecki said. “We have the banking and the security association that we utilize in the unfortunate scenario that something similar, such as the armed robberies at Valero, occurs again.”

Both Biniecki and Smith said criminals like two things – not to be seen or heard.

They said residents can deter thieves by having good lighting on all entryways, along with a security camera if finances allow. A large reason why local gas stations are targeted is the lack of outside lighting.

Biniecki also advised to not have any shrubbery near windows or entrances that would make it easy for a criminal to hide in.

These tips will certainly not cease all crime, but having the public generally informed about safety and current happenings is something about which Biniecki feels strongly.

Biniecki remains hopeful the community will help promote steps to safety, so people become less of a target to those looking to commit felonious acts within the county.

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