By Helena Rodriguez, PNT Staff Writer
The case of a home invasion this past week in which an elderly woman was brutally beaten has many residents uneasy and remembering two other seemingly-recent high profile incidents of violence against senior citizens.
Although three suspects were arrested on Tuesday for the assault and battery against an 82-year-old woman, Jo Ann Vickers, fears and worries remain. Capt. Lonnie Berry of the Portales Police Department said he has been flooded with calls and concerns, and on Thursday, the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office also went to speak to people at the Portales Senior Citizen’s Center about what can be done to help secure the homes of the elderly.
“Almost everywhere I go, people have been talking to me about this right now, asking me what they can do to ensure their own safety,” Berry said. “This particular case was random. It became an act of violence when the suspects determined someone was home. These things are common in other communities, but it really hits home when it hits here.”
Vickers suffered a broken hip when suspects reportedly broke into her home at night, stole jewelry and beat her. Vickers was able to crawl to the door and alert neighbors who happened to be getting home at about that time. Berry said a fourth suspect may also be arrested as soon as next week on charges of disposing of stolen property. The three current suspects include Jay Brian Stuart, 20; Preston Blake, 25; and Joel Zertuche, 18, all of Portales. Berry said the suspects will be expected to make court appearances soon and this will most likely be followed by court proceedings.
Berry said that this latest incident does not reflect a trend or pattern of violent crimes against the elderly in this community, although nationwide, crimes against the elderly are increasing. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Most cases against elderly are financial, usually over gimmicks or scams or involving people they know, like when people who they depend on to care for them take advantage of them.”
Nevertheless, Berry said, “The case of Mr. Leal never leaves our minds. We’re constantly looking at anything that comes up in that case.” Berry was referring to a still unsolved case in which an elderly man, Nabor Leal, 88, was beaten unconscious during a robbery at his home in July of 2006.
When one thinks of crimes against the elderly around here, another high-profile case, the double homicides of Odis and Doris Newman in 2005, springs to mind. In the drug-motivated crime, the elderly couple were kidnapped, beaten and eventually burned to death in the trunk of their car. Two men, Stanley Bedford and Jerry Fuller, are serving 120-year and 127-year prison sentences respectively for the crime.
District Attorney Matt Chandler said his office was asked to do a refresher about the Newman Project. This nonprofit organization was formed in memory of Odis and Doris Newman and Chandler said it is being looked at by the New Mexico Long-term and Aging Commission, which is currently evaluating the Newman Project and is looking into launching it statewide.
“They are really impressed with the Newman Project and what it has to offer,” Chandler said. Under the Newman Project, senior citizens are provided with free motion detector lights for their homes, deadbolt locks, peep holes, smoke alarms, front or back porch lights, and as Chandler said, “Anything that will help secure the house and allow the senior citizen to live comfortably and securely.”
“We have replaced doors, installed fire extinguishers and peep holes and even a back yard fence,” Chandler said. He said the Newman Project is funded through a grant provided by the New Mexico Legislature, under the sponsorship of Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Roswell.
Chandler said, “There are concerns amongst senior citizens throughout the district, but even more so throughout the state. Senior citizens are being taken advantage of all across the country and we want to do everything we can to eliminate that in our district.”
He added that his office is available to do presentations to any group, on security and safety of senior citizens. This includes the topics of identify theft or fraud prevention.
Berry feels people are confident that the police were able to make arrests in the Vickers case. Nevertheless, he urges people to exercise caution, do safety inspections of their homes, making sure all doors, front and back, are secure, as well as windows. Police believe that in the Vickers case, the back door was not secure since there were no signs of forced entry.
He especially encourages people to call the police with any concerns.
“If they call us, police, we are going to send somebody out,” he said. “Just the other day, I got a call from someone who said their neighbor’s dogs were barking and they never bark. We’re getting more calls now and we don’t mind people doing that at all.”
Berry also urges neighbors to help watch out for each other. “We are a tight-knit community, everyone talks to each other, and we need to be that way. That’s one good thing about this case is that when the lady was able to reach the front porch, her neighbors were able to come to her aid. I think by being close-knit, that will help keep these types of situations down. It doesn’t matter what side of town you live on.”
Berry said he has also been receiving calls on how to start Neighborhood Watches. Although police are not the ones who initiate such programs — it is up to neighborhoods — he said they can help point people in the right direction .
“A Neighborhood Watch is just a formal name for an old-fashioned project,” Berry said.
The following tips can help senior citizens, as well as anyone, play it safe at home:
• Be alert.
• Do not give out information about yourself or your household to strangers.
• If your home needs repair work, use repair people you know or get references from family and friends. Do not let a complete stranger do the work.
• Do not let strangers have access to your home, under any circumstances.
• When repair work is being done, try to have family or friends present.
• Report suspicious people in the neighborhood who are asking suspicious questions.
• Report door-to-door salespeople to police. In New Mexico, they must have a license to do this.
• Make sure all doors and windows are securely locked.
• The minute you hear anything unusual, call police.
• There are some pretty good alarm systems on the market that will notify police.
• Make sure you use quality devices and make sure they are functioning properly.
• Make your home hard for burglars to enter. Most burglars do not want to work hard to gain entrance. They will move on to an easier target.
• Motion detector lights are ideal. They also alert neighbors to unusual activity at unusual hours.
• Be aware of people offering to do lawn work and only use known sources. This is a good opportunity for would-be-burglars to spy out your home windows and doors.
• Nosy neighbors are good neighbors. Get to know them. They know what’s going on in the neighborhood and can easily spot anything out-of-the-ordinary. They can help protect your home and even your children.
• Form a Neighborhood Watch.
• Take a few minutes to document family heirlooms (this helped identify stolen property in the Vickers case).
• Light is a burglar’s worst enemy. Lighten up any dark spots in your front or back yard.
• Some reports from crime institutes suggest having dogs can help provide further home security (get advice concerning senior citizens and dogs beforehand, though).
• Keep doors and windows locked during the daytime as well.
• Always be aware of your circumstances and surroundings.
Source: Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry