Petty, petty crime

19:49, Oct 27 2012

The case of the pilfered cheese may never be solved.

The weather forecast looked bright as mother-of-four Hayley Marsh opened the fridge in the communal kitchen in the Reefton Domain Camping Ground. She'd expected to find milk for her cup of tea and the kids' cereal, but the plastic bag containing the family's dairy products was missing.

Mildly annoyed, Marsh mentioned the theft to the woman in the campsite office.

"She was really sorry," Marsh says from her Christchurch home 10 months after the violation. That afternoon a policeman turned up with his notebook.

"He asked my name, my middle name, date of birth, address - every detail I've got. He asked what had been taken and I was kind of vague because I really didn't think it was worth getting the police in, so I said 'Just some milk and cheese'.

"He was so earnest. He asked what kind of cheese. I told him it was a wedge of blue cheese, some processed cheese singles and some brie. Then I heard an audible groan. He said: 'Oh no, not the brie'. He sounded more devastated than me."


Marsh added milk to the list of stolen items.

"Full fat or trim?" asked the officer.

"He was treating it so seriously, it was like I'd discovered a homicide."

Marsh later found a little pile of plastic wrappers in a nearby skate park - wrappers from processed cheese singles - and the wedge of blue cheese that remained untouched.

"Yes," says Marsh. "They'd eaten the rubbery cheese and dumped the good stuff. Hurtful."

It almost sounds like a joke, but the Reefton police took the dairy theft seriously.

Christchurch woman Amanda Fitzwater was burgled last month. Thieves took jewellery and cleaned out the bathroom - but not in a Jif or Mr Muscle way. They took the shampoo and conditioner, mousse, hairspray, face-wash, toner and her husband's shaving cream.

"Obviously it's not the worst thing in the world, but my hair looked crap for a week. I was looking in the mirror and thinking 'thanks guys'.

"They're the kinds of things you buy over time, not all in one go so it's at least $200 worth of stuff."

Detective Sergeant Mike Earl, of the Christchurch volume crime unit, says the smaller items usually end up in the swag bag as a last-minute thought.

"First they'll go for the valuable items that'll get them some money. But then something will catch their eye on the way out, so in a mad rush they'll just grab everything and dump the items that turn out to be of no value.

"Or they might see something quirky, like art or an ornament, and grab it.

"Freezers are a target. Food is often stolen, especially ham in the leadup to Christmas. It's not unusual for drinks to disappear out of the fridge."

However, a former criminal, once dubbed by a judge as one of the most prolific burglars in Christchurch, says the less-valuable items are simply a "perk of the job" for inexperienced criminals.

"The more serious guys are there to do a job - get the jewellery, the big TVs and get out.

"The guys who are starting out see those little things as perks."

The man, who has been straight for nearly seven years, says "the perks" help build the myth that these criminals have money to throw around.

" I remember taking half-used aftershave so I didn't have to buy it for myself. If it's MAC make-up, you know it's worth a bit.

"I did smash 'n' grabs at hair salons and took products just to impress the girls. They'd be thinking 'oh my God, he's cool'. It's all about your image and making your reputation bigger.

"They'll steal anything. If it's food, they might go to their mum's house and say, 'Look what I've got'. It sounds bizarre, but they think of it as helping out the family.

"They're young. They might not be good at getting or keeping their [wage- earning] jobs so they take smaller things for themselves. It's not as if they're doing up their houses with the stuff they take, it's all about the money.

"They take it and sell to someone they know will buy stolen goods or to a neighbour, who thinks it's all right because they didn't steal it themselves. They think it doesn't contribute to crime but it does."

Senior Sergeant Peter Laloli, of Hornby, has been on the force for 40 years. He has been first on scene to homicides and fielded calls over the theft of birds, cats and dogs. No matter the size or weight of complaint, he encourages people to report crime.

"When we release statistics it's only on reported crime not actual crime, so we need to know what we are dealing with. Too many people live in fear of crime when the reality is different. People worry so much about being burgled when they go out at night, but the majority of burglaries happen during the day."

He has experienced his fair share of oddball crime.

"One winter we had a woman who rang repeatedly. Someone was shining a torch through her window at 6pm every night. Eventually we pulled in more staff and staked her home out waiting for this peeping Tom.

"It was a train. She lived beside a railway line. We still had to fill out the reports."

Joking aside, police in Canterbury are noticing a rise in minor and stress- related incidents.

Canterbury police had been warned that based on international studies on crime and disaster, they would see an increase in stress crime.

"We're seeing it here now," says Laloli. "Mind you, we've had so many monumental events it feels like we're always 18 months after one or another."

He says tolerance in Canterbury is at a low. "We're seeing an increase in neighbourly domestics, [such as] arguments over shared driveway issues. We had a report for harassment because one person got up at 5am and saw a neighbour staring at them. That neighbour had just got up and was staring out the window, like you do.

"There's an increase in road rage. Three years ago if someone was cut off at the lights they might have beeped and done the fingers. Now they'll chase them and get into an altercation.

"Petty crime isn't really a term we use, I suppose we'd call it minor offending.

"We have a charge of 'using obscene language' that we can use. Twenty or 30 years ago you'd be arrested for it, but times have changed. You can go home and see that language in a book or on TV now."

Meanwhile, less headline-grabbing crime filters through slowly but surely. The Timaru Herald runs a daily "Police Notebook" column that records reported incidents.

Letterbox crime makes a regular appearance. Already this month that newspaper's readers have read how several letterboxes were smashed in Temuka in Wilkin, Rayner and Princess streets, while another letterbox was thrown on the roof of a garage in Douglas St.

And if you're wondering about the cheese criminals of Reefton. They're still at large.

Almost six months to the day it was stolen, Marsh received a phone message saying the crime had not yet been solved.


CRIME STATISTICS Petty crime is not official terminology. Police group crime into about 15 categories for statistical purposes. The latest Canterbury figures show 6575 reported thefts (not including motor vehicles) down 14.5 per cent on the previous year. These offences have a resolution rate of 34.7 per cent, down from 35.2 per cent the previous year. Nationally there were 67,431 thefts reported for the same period with a resolution rate of 31.3 per cent.

Unlawful entry with intent (burglary, break and enter) shows 5538 incidents in the past financial calendar year, down from 7087 in the previous 12-month period. The national number of burglaries was 57,351.

Under the category of offensive behaviour, 230 acts were recorded (down from 279 the previous year) with 74 per cent of these resolved. Nationally, the number was 1431.

The Press