It's a rare thing when a newspaper editor has a personal connection to any crime story he reports on. But when Ceres police descended on a house in the 800 block of Azores Lane in west Ceres last week, I was called in as a victim.
Suspects were living in a bank-owned Azores Lane house as squatters and were in possession of property that belonged to me, taken in a July 3 burglary. Among the items taken were some blank checks.
Knowing that my checks were in the hands of a thief, I closed my account within minutes. I later discovered that the thief also made off with every driver's license of mine that I had saved as mementos.
My bank's fraud department called me on Sept. 12 to ask if I recently wrote a check for $1,018 to the city of "goes" (at least that's how she interpreted the writing to read). The bank lady's suspicions were high since the signature on the check did not resemble my signature on file. I informed her that I had not written any checks on the closed account and asked if she could email me the front of the check. Immediately I saw that it was a forgery. Curiously it is written to the city of Ceres for a "city bill."
I saw city finance department employees and they suggested that they could find whose account it was applied toward and suggested that it was for a delinquent account. I alerted Ceres Police that somebody passed the city a stolen check.
I didn't hear of anything until Wednesday, Sept. 17. Officer Greg Yotsuya asked me to come to a house where he and other officers were making an arrest. My old driver's license was found, as was my dead wife's Social Security card and a copy of her death certificate.
The squatters were discovered because of a tip made by a neighbor. There were suspicions about squatters in the house that had no water or power. Code enforcement officer Frank Alvarez showed up to investigate at 11:22 a.m. and learned that the house was bank owned and that the city had turned off the water after the bad check written on my old account had bounced. Neighbors said the squatters were taking water from surrounding house hose bibs.
Alvarez knocked on the door and Latausha Young, 22, came out through the garage. She told the city official that she is from Arizona and that the house was her uncle's. It's possible she didn't know the truth that the bank owned it. She said her 5-year-old son and her uncle were upstairs. Francisco Escobar, 42, was inside the house. In plain view in his bedroom was my driver's license and other items. He was arrested for two forgery warrants issued by Merced County, as well as child endangerment and possession of stolen property.
Since the economy went "bad" and houses started getting repossessed, transients have settled into some that are empty. It's not hard for criminals to figure out that a dead yellow lawn and no draperies means nobody is living at a home. After all, the banks don't go around putting signs on houses that are vacant. Repossessed houses can be vacant for months and sometimes a year. Unfortunately, those who move in are not your law-abiding type of citizens; they are often riff-raff who often make their living by stealing and selling the stuff for which you and I work.
I was astounded to learn from police that many neighbors could put a stop to all this by reporting squatters but many don't get involved. It could be they just aren't aware, or they don't want trouble. But there is trouble when squatters move in. In some cases, squatters pose as owners who then "rent" out the house that is not theirs for cash.
Francisco Escobar is a bit player in the drama of my burglary. Chances are that he got one of many blank checks that were traded for drugs from point A to point B to point C to point D to point, well you get it. Seeing how Escobar had only paper used for ID theft, it's not likely that he pulled off my actual burglary.
What a sad truth that the Valley is full of people who had opportunities and blew them from bad decisions to become the leaches of society rather than positive contributors to society.
How do you feel about running? Let Jeff know at firstname.lastname@example.org.