Stolen Letters: The Struggle to Recover an Heirloom Illuminates Problems Facing Corvallis Law Enforcement

Bonnie has been robbed before—four times in the past year. She doesn’t live in a particularly rough block of Detroit, but in the College Hill neighborhood of Corvallis.

She’s kicking herself, because she knew better than to leave valuables in her vehicle, but she was sick that fateful May 22, parked her car, and went inside to sleep, leaving a precious backpack behind.

lettersThe thief went in through the back window, and broke her heart. The next morning, she smelled cigarette smoke in her car and realized her backpack was gone. Inside were her ID, credit cards, cellphone, and, most tragically, a collection of letters she and her mother exchanged in the 1970s.
“They’re irreplaceable… you can’t put a price on those,” she said.

Bonnie posted ads and fliers around the neighborhood, offering a reward… to no avail. She engaged in a “big, long process” to get Sprint, her cellphone carrier, to “ping” the phone so it could be located. By then, it was in the possession of a man, clear across town, who claimed he bought it from a guy in Central Park at 7:30 a.m. The police searched his house, but didn’t find her other stuff.

“When somebody steals from you, it’s such a violation, and you’re so angry about it,” she said.

Self-deputized as an amateur sleuth by lack of police progress, Bonnie noticed a curious coincidence: Some of the calls made on her phone, while stolen, were to Florida, and: “My neighbor across the street had his credit card stolen, and they charged $2,500 of medical equipment… to be delivered to an empty warehouse in Florida.”

While frustrated the police aren’t moving faster in their investigation, Bonnie sympathizes with their manpower dilemma. “As the student population increases, the crime activity increases,” she notes. Unfortunately, “OSU is exempt from contributing [property taxes] to city police, but more than 80% of the student population live off campus… they have limited officers available to do ‘detective work.’ So they rely on citizens to do a lot of their own work.”

Captain Dave Henslee of the Corvallis Police Department insists the problem isn’t being ignored: “We have a Community Livability Coalition made up of community members, city personnel, and Oregon State University working together to find ways to alleviate some of the community livability issues. OSU is a direct part of that collaboration.”

He readily admits his department is understaffed, at 0.97 officers per 1,000 residents. “The average is substantially higher than that. We’re trying to get to a point where we have 1.2 officers per 1,000, which would put our ratio back to be consistent with where it was in 1993… which would require us to hire 13 additional staff.” They currently have 53 sworn officers to serve 55,000 residents, plus the Oregon State population.

“We’re working to get ourselves back to where we were 20 years ago… our staffing has maintained exactly the same, but the population has increased quite a bit. There are 123 law enforcement agencies in the state of Oregon, and when you look at their percentage of officers per population, we are 120th on the list. There are only three agencies that have a worse percentage of officers per population than we do, and two of those departments only have a chief.”

“We are in the top 10 of Oregon cities population wise, and we are the worst staffed of those top 10 cities.” Why? “It’s all about budgets; property values went down, our revenues continue to decrease and our expenses continue to increase. It’s all about money.” He says the city is looking into putting a tax levy to a vote, possibly on November’s ballot, which would increase the police budget.

It can’t come quick enough. Bonnie says someone in the police department told her “OSU is such a popular hit area that people come down from Portland to break into cars.”

Henslee concurs: “Criminals recognize that college-aged kids have iPods, they have laptops, they have nice bicycles. We do in fact arrest people from out of town who come into town because of the population we have here, and they do target that population.”

Back in October, Bonnie had a yard sale where a guy grabbed some stained glass panels she was selling, threw them in his truck, and drove off. Bonnie gave chase, and in a brutally ironic twist, was pulled over for speeding. She told the cop what was going on, but he didn’t give chase. He gave Bonnie a ticket instead, for going 40 in a 25 mph zone.

As for the stolen letters, the Street Crimes investigations unit has the case pending, but they “don’t have any leads,” Henslee says. “We don’t have any latent evidence, and we don’t have anything tangible to go on, other than this person [who bought the cellphone] identifying who the subject is… there’s not much more for us to do, other than hopefully the guy sees him again.”

By Seth Aronson