As the City of Aiken recovers from the shock waves created by a rash of nighttime home invasions in the downtown area last week, local authorities are advising residents on what they can do to keep their homes safe and avoid becoming the next victim.
Aiken Public Safety officers responded to a burglar alarm on the 300 block of Newberry Street around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday. It was soon realized that other homes nearby had been broken into, and while officers were establishing a perimeter, a resident called 911 and said a man had been in her home on Lancaster Street and fled on foot.
Two men have been arrested, and a third is being sought by officers.
Investigators confirmed that the suspects burglarized four homes – all of which were occupied by sleeping residents. Additionally, 12 vehicles were broken into.
At each location, the suspect reportedly entered the home through an unlocked or unsecured door.
Lock your doors
Sgt. Jason Feemster of the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office said officers frequently respond to home and vehicle break-ins during which the owner left their vehicle or home unlocked or open.
“It’s simple things,” he said. “Lock your doors. Lighting is a good thing to deter people. And definitely keep your items out of view of your windows.”
Whether it’s in your car or in your living room, make sure to keep valuables and other items a thief may be eyeing out of eyesight, Feemster said.
“You won’t want your electronics from Christmas sitting on the table where people could look in and see,” he said.
Keep your eyes open
One of the best things you can do to keep your home and neighborhood safe is keeping your eyes open, Feemster said.
“We need as many calls as possible about suspicious persons or vehicles,” he said. “If you see somebody suspicious, don’t assume that somebody else is going to call. If you see a vehicle driving back and forth at night, call the Sheriff’s Office or Public Safety.
“You are your biggest defense. You’ve got to deter crime by putting stuff up and looking out for each other.”
During one of the burglaries on Tuesday, a woman was woken by a light shining in her face, according to reports. She saw a man in dark clothing standing outside of her bedroom with a flashlight in his hand and woke her husband. The suspect then ran down the stairs and out of the home.
Call 911 first
During a home invasion, the first thing you should do is call 911, Feemster said.
“If they’re inside your home, we always tell people to call 911, stay on the line with 911 and go back to a room where you can secure that door the best way that you can and wait for law enforcement to arrive and assist you,” he said.
People often make the mistake of calling a family member or neighbor at the first sign of suspicious activity, Feemster said.
“If your property is being broke into, call 911 first,” he said. “That way, we can get law enforcement en route.”
Firearms in the home
Many people keep firearms in their homes as a line of defense. The 2006 Protection of Persons and Property Act outlines what is described as the “common law castle doctrine” in South Carolina, which recognizes that a person’s home is his castle and authorizes the use of deadly force in certain circumstances.
The legislation was extended to include a person’s vehicle and place of business.
The law states there is no duty to retreat for someone with a firearm in their home if: the person is in a place where they have a right to be; the person is not engaged in an unlawful activity; and the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent death, great bodily injury or the commission of a violent crime.
“If you feel like your family or life are in danger, then you have that right to defend yourself,” Feemster said. “You don’t have to retreat, is basically what the law says.”
Classes are available to teach residents about firearms and how to use them, including laws regarding their use.
Feemster said he stresses that people are properly trained on how to use a firearm.
“If you have that weapon and you’ve called law enforcement, let dispatchers know that you have a weapon for defense,” he said. “That way it doesn’t surprise any law enforcement officers.”
Matthew Goodwin, of Aiken, said he keeps weapons in his home as a line of defense.
“We always have our doors locked,” he said. “We have a fully-trained, well-trained German shepherd. She’s extremely loyal, extremely loving and extremely vicious, and she will attack unless she’s told not to.”
Goodwin, who has taken gun classes and is a former competition shooter, said he had to grab a gun three times in response to an intruder while he was living in Michigan.
“One time, I didn’t even have to pull it,” he said. “(The intruder) just saw it on me and that was good enough. It must be some kind of climate control device because he said ‘Everything’s cool.’ I never had to shoot anybody; just the mere appearance of the weapon was enough to deter the crime.”
Goodwin said having a gun is similar to buying insurance for your home or car.
“Better to have it and not need it, than need it but not have it,” he said.
Leslie Anaclerio lives downtown and received the reverse 911 call sent out to residents within a short radius of the perimeter on Tuesday. All homes with a landline are eligible to receive a reverse 911 call.
“I was very alarmed, and it was surprising,” she said. “And to think, they came in while people were in the homes asleep. That’s the most disturbing part.”
Anaclerio said her family has taken security precautions since building their house eight years ago, including a burglar alarm, two dogs and having additional outdoor lighting installed.
“I think that we’re doing all that we can,” she said. “We always keep our doors locked. We try to be safe.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.