Sheriff rounds up burglary ring

By Ron Burtz

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A tip from a member of the public was key to breaking up a burglary ring that has operated in a three county area over the past several months, according to authorities. Three search warrants were executed recently which led to the recovery of numerous items stolen from 13 unoccupied homes in Custer County as well as houses in Pennington and Lawrence Counties. 

Custer County Sheriff’s deputy Derrick Reifenrath, the lead investigator in the case, said “One of the main reasons we were able to get these search warrants and further the case was due to a member of the community seeing something they thought was suspicious and letting  us know about it. That was the only tip throughout all three counties. That was the piece we needed.”

Three search warrants were served in Pennington County in recent days which led to the recovery of numerous items taken in break-ins in the tri-county area over the past several months. An approximately 4-by-8-foot white board in the sheriff’s office is nearly covered with a listing of various items recovered in the searches. The list includes such items as firearms, knives, flashlights and even a small amount of marijuana. 

“That was a joint operation with Lawrence and Pennington County,” said Reifenrath, speaking of the search warrants. He says he does not know the exact number of homes broken into in the other two counties but knows there were “quite a few.” 

Reifenrath says while arrests are pending in the case, three suspects, including two juveniles and an adult, have all been interviewed and have been quite forthcoming with details of the burglaries.

“I think they realize that they were caught,” said Reifenrath when asked why the suspects were so willing to talk to investigators. He says another reason for their talkativeness may be state laws requiring criminals to make restitution to victims in property crimes.  

“It behooves you to talk in a burglary situation because it will cut down on the restitution if you’re able to give back some of that property you’re not going to have to pay for that property,” said Reifenrath.

Reifenrath says the suspects believe that 13 is the total number of burglaries they committed in Custer County, however, he adds, “They didn’t exactly know where they were all the time, so there’s a possibility of more.”

Sheriff Marty Mechaley added, “I would not be surprised if—come spring—there are some more properties that are discovered. A lot of times they don’t recall every little place they’ve been to. There have been times when we’ve had to take suspects, put them in a patrol car and drive them around and start to point out different areas.”    

Reifenrath says the suspects also admitted to burning some items they did not want to keep.

“Once the snow melts,” he said, “if anybody finds piles of burnt items please contact the sheriff’s office.” 

One fact that convinces authorities they have zeroed in on the perpetrators in the case is that no more burglaries have been reported in the county since the search warrants were served. 

Referring to the investigation as “massive” because of the amount of stolen property involved, Mechaley said it will probably take at least a couple of weeks before charges are filed as investigators sift through the large amount of evidence and recovered items. Another delaying factor is the fact that some of the suspects are juveniles which means the decision to make an arrest lies with the state’s attorney’s office. 

One stolen item Reifenrath says he is pleased to be able to eventually return to its owner is an antique shotgun that has great sentimental value because it was passed down from a grandfather, but was also appraised several years ago at $4,000.

Mechaley defines a burglary ring as a group of two or more people who carry out a number of break-ins and says he has seen a number of such rings come and go in the time he has been in Custer. “They travel around to multiple counties and do this,” he said. 

The sheriff says he makes a priority of aggressively stamping out such rings.

“People have no respect for other people’s property,” he said. “We want to go after them.”

Mechaley said his hat was off to Reifenrath and Lt. Jeff McGraw who he says did an excellent job of breaking the case and spent a great deal of time investigating every burglary, even so far as collecting DNA evidence at the scenes. This in spite of the fact that sometimes there were as many as four burglaries investigated in one shift. 

Mechaley and Reifenrath also reiterated their thanks for the tip from the public that led to breaking the case. Mechaley called the public the “eyes and ears” of the sheriff’s office and Reifenrath added, “Anytime the community sees something odd, don’t hesitate to call us on it because it might help us down the road.”

An incident that was reported to the sheriff’s office in which an image of an unidentified person was captured on a security camera on the porch of a house turned out to be unrelated to the burglary ring. (That photo was printed in a recent issue of the Chronicle.) 

“We were able to identify that person,” said Reifenrath, but adds “technically no crime was committed at that time.”

Yet another burglary in which the cash register was stolen from Pizza Works in Custer during the afternoon of New Year’s Eve is believed to be unrelated to the burglary ring and is still under investigation. 

“That’s another case where we really would hope we could get a tip on that,” said Mechaley.