LAST Wednesday night a Clarendon couple retired to bed after a long day and after tucking in their two children. Minutes before hitting the sack, though, the man's wife smelled a strange odour that caused her nostrils to burn. She told him about it but he brushed aside the complaint and encouraged her to go to bed.
Two hours later, at approximately 2 o'clock, the man, who is a soldier, was roused from his slumber by his wife who told him that their bedroom door was opened. Probably in another community this detail would not have aroused any suspicions. After all, two children were inside the house. But this is Longville Park, a dormitory community on the St Catherine/Clarendon parish boundaries that has been experiencing a rash of house break-ins.
Springing from the bed, the man reached for his gun beneath his pillow but it was not there. He frantically searched the room for the weapon, but it was nowhere to be found. Now in the hallway, he could see that his front door was wide open. There was no need to explain what had occurred.
The bandits made off with $200,000, the family's passports, the firearm and other items, the May Pen police said. A chilling note left by the perpetrators shows just how close the soldier had come to death. Thinking that he was a police officer, the burglars had planned on killing him but decided not to follow through because his family was in the house, according to a police source who saw the note. The note also advised the victim to tell the police to stop patrolling the scheme at nights or they would be killed.
The main perpetrators, the police believe, are three men from the community who are provided with information by other men about residents which assists them in carrying out their unlawful acts. Four men have been held since January, but it is not clear what became of their case.
Statistics released by the May Pen police to the Sunday Observer on the weekend show that there have been 11 house break-ins in the scheme since the start of the year. The main items taken were electrical appliances, jewellery and cash. Two guns were also stolen, one from the soldier in Wednesday's incident and the other during a previous break-in at the home of a police officer.
Baldvin McKenzie, the acting president of the citizens' association, and residents suggest that the number of incidents could be twice as much as those provided by the police.
"Every weekend there is a break-in here," said McKenzie. Additionally, a resident said that not all cases have been reported to the police. Wednesday's incident follows a visit days earlier by the Sunday Observer to the housing scheme, 12 kilometres west of Old Harbour, where stories abound of homes being burglarised and notes left at the bedside of sleeping victims.
The visit was prompted by a call from a resident, herself a victim, who, like many others, feel that not enough is being done by the police to protect them. Over the years, the residents were hesitant about calling media attention to the problem, fearing that it would result in the devaluing of their properties. Now they are eager to talk.
"It is going to stay like this until you hear murder on top of murder," said one resident. "It can't continue like this."
The areas of the scheme hit hardest, according to residents, are sectors A and B of Phase I where incidents of break-ins involving the use of guns have been on the increase over the past two weeks. On Marigold Street and Hibiscus Crescent, it is not unusual for one homeowner to be victimised on multiple occasions. So scared are the householders that some stay up all night, not going to bed until 3:00 am, or taking turns to sleep as they watch for intruders.
Over the past year, others have opted to leave the community. Other residents are considering a similar move.
"Everybody is on edge," said a female resident, whose house was broken into on June 19, the second time in three years. Asked to relate her story, the woman exclaimed, "Lord God!" before proceeding. The fact that the May Pen Police Station is 25 kilometres away from the scheme doesn't offer any consolation to residents, who complain that the police do not arrive in a timely manner when called. The only ones this seems to benefit are the criminals, who usually get away scot-free.
However, Superintendent Dayton Henry, the officer in charge of the Clarendon Police Division, has disputed the residents' claim, insisting that the police respond as quickly as possible.
Construction on the long-awaited police station in the community by the National Housing Trust (NHT) should start in December with a completion date of February 2013, but that is little comfort to residents who have had their grilles cut off, their dogs poisoned and belongings stolen.
Many fear they will be next.
Wednesday's invasion of the soldier's home in Phase II of the scheme featured the calling card of the burglars, the leaving behind of notes to their victims. On one occasion, a derogatory note was left commenting on the underwear of a female victim. Sometime last year, after the home of a married couple was burglarised, the culprits left behind a graphic note about the woman's pubic area. In that incident, $200,000 and food items were taken.
According to another account, thieves broke into the home of a woman, drank her liquor, some of which was used to soak items of clothing on a bed in another room. The men urinated on the householder's settee, before making off with the groceries she had brought home earlier. The following morning, the woman woke up to a note informing her to buy better liquor "fi man drink".
Residents believe they know why victims are able to sleep so soundly while all this is taking place in their homes. They are of the view that the intruders are using some form of chemical on their sleeping victims, which puts them in a deeper state of unconsciousness.
A man whose house was broken into in April is convinced that the criminals have been using some chemical agent. He said he does not sleep in late nor is he a sound sleeper, yet he woke up around 9 o'clock on the morning after his house was broken into and his $200,000 taken. He said his son, who is sickly and hardly ever sleeps, slept like a baby. In fact, they had problems keeping him awake the morning after the break-in, he said.
But Superintendent Henry said there is no proof of chemicals being used by the criminals. To him, the householders are just sound sleepers.
Still, last Wednesday's incident in which the soldier's wife reported smelling a strange odour before retiring to bed could lend some credence to the residents' suspicion.
However, not all the victims were sound asleep when the burglars struck. Two Saturdays ago, around midnight, gunmen broke into a home in Phase I. A workman was shot and injured and the householder robbed of $1,000 and her wedding band. The criminals' words to their victims: "A we run Longville."
Two weeks prior, a woman was robbed at a shop and shot in the leg, according to residents, and close to a month ago a man was about to enter his home when he was held up. The criminals told him that they had already taken what they wanted from his house, before firing into the air in an effort to intimidate him. Using expletives, the men commented, "You see what we can do."
Also troubling to the residents is the fact that the men's criminality isn't restricted to the cover of dark. Earlier this year, a removal van pulled up outside a house in Sector A of Phase I. Seated on her verandah, a woman watched as the men loaded the vehicle, one item after another, from a neighbour's house. The men appeared friendly and addressed her by her first name although she had never seen them before. It was only after the householder returned from work that everyone realised that the friendly 'removal men' were actually thieves. The incident marked the fourth break-in at the house.
Some months later, the men struck in similar fashion, almost emptying a house along Marigold Street of its furniture and appliances while the occupants were away.
Longville Park had not always been this way, and homeowners reminisced on a time when they could go to bed or leave their homes for the day without feeling the need to lock their doors or windows. The scheme rests on several hundred acres of land on a hill with a scenic view that includes the nearby Port Esquivel.
The NHT started construction on the scheme in 1997 and by 1999 people started moving in. Phase II was later added. The scheme, which houses more than 12,000 residents, has on several occasions been voted the number one NHT housing scheme and is again a finalist in the competition in which a winner will be selected next week.
But to those affected by the spate of crime, the competition is the least of their concerns. Contributors to Longville Park's current problem are manifold, according to residents. Along with the issue of the community being without a police station, the other factors outlined are the influx of men in the area, attracted by work on Phase III of the scheme; the renting of homes to people of questionable character; the vast amounts of heavily vegetated areas within the community; and the disintegration of the neighbourhood patrol teams.
But for Superintendent Henry, the problem can be attributed to two factors: the initial refusal of residents to provide the police with sufficient information and people not looking out for each other.
"It's just [recently] we started getting bits and pieces of information from residents," Henry said. "Policing is based on intelligence, so you can deploy, and deploy intelligently."
McKenzie, the citizens' association acting president, and other residents agree that there hasn't been a cohesive effort on the part of the residents to ensure each other's security. Now, efforts are being made, with the assistance of the police, to establish neighbourhood watches throughout 12 sectors of the scheme.
Shortly after the construction of Phase I, the scheme maintained a vigilant patrol team consisting of residents and backed by the police. But the effort eventually died out in the early 2000s. Asked what caused the breakdown, a man who was a part of the group said: "The people got too relaxed."