Unsolved Berkus House thefts cause resident tension

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Victims of four recent burglaries at Berkus House said the crimes have created a sense of distrust among the house’s community after investigations into the thefts left the victims empty-handed.

Residents Gabby Hanna (senior) and Aviva Alvarez-Zakson (senior) reported the semester’s first burglary Jan. 22 after Hanna’s purse and Alvarez-Zakson’s iPad and its accessories were purportedly taken from their room on the second floor. Hanna estimated the total value of her stolen property to be $400, and Alvarez-Zakson estimated the value of her property at $600–700 dollars.

Two more burglaries occurred in March. Jessica Ingle’s (junior) clothing was stolen from the house’s laundry room March 1. Clothes were also taken March 14 from Samarah Jackson’s (senior) closet, located outside of her room. The lock to the closet had been broken since Jackson moved into Berkus House in August, and she said repeated requests to Facilities Management to fix the lock after the theft went unanswered.

Clery Act Administrator Veronika Barsegyan declined to release detailed incident reports.

While a suspect has yet to be identified, it is likely the burglaries were perpetrated by someone with access to the house, according to Chief of Campus Safety Victor Clay.

“No evidence showed that anyone came in from the outside. There was no sign of forced entry, no disturbed dust,” he said.

Clay searched online pawn sites for the missing items and scoured shops around Northeast Los Angeles on foot but did not find any of the stolen items. According to Clay, the cases are still open with Campus Safety and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Clay, Assistant Director of Residential Education Meredith Mickaliger and Associate Director of Residential Education Juls White directed a mandatory hallspread, attended by 22 of the 25 residents, last Tuesday to address the issue.

Still, several residents felt that the action was taken too late.

“I think it’s kind of ridiculous that we’re having this meeting after four times that this has happened this semester,” Jackson said. “It’s ridiculous that it had to come to this to have any type of meeting and to have a response from the staff.”

Mackaliger said that Berkus House Resident Advisor Ashley Ajayia held a meeting regarding the thefts earlier in the semester, but few of the residents attended because it was not mandatory. This prompted Residential Education to make last Tuesday’s meeting compulsory.

At the second meeting, the residents questioned Clay and the Residential Education officials about their future plan of action.

“I don’t think there will be a whole lot more action going forward,” Hanna said. “I think at this point the stuff is pretty much gone, unfortunately.”

Last semester, toiletries were often taken from common areas in Berkus House, but none of the thefts were ever reported to Campus Safety, Clay said.

Alvarez-Zakson criticized the lack of response from college administrators, requesting that there be more communication between the complainants and officials in the future. She sent an email March 2 to nine Occidental officials, including the Residence Life and Dean of Students email addresses, and received no replies.

“Knowing the legality of the issue, I know that there isn’t much else that can be done, but it’s frustrating that I had no idea that Mr. Clay was going out looking for my stuff,” Alvarez-Zakson said. “Communication between us and professional staff on campus, maybe even just progress reports, would be very helpful and appreciated.”

Ajayi suggested that Residential Education install security cameras at each entrance to the building. White replied that the college would be unable to do that this year due to budget constraints.

After a debate regarding the legal and ethical issues of performing a room-by-room search, the residents who attended the meeting agreed to allow the victims of the burglaries to conduct searches that night while the Occidental officials waited in the common room. Ajayi stood watch at each door. While nothing was found, Hanna maintains that the process was productive.

“We didn’t ultimately find anything but I think it felt good to just be able to do that,” Hanna said. “I think it gave a little bit of closure for people who had their stuff taken, knowing that it wasn’t just sitting in someone’s room next door to you.”

Nevertheless, the burglaries have created a culture of suspicion among the residents, according to those present at the hallspread.

“You pass someone in the hall and you wonder, ‘Are you the thief?’” resident Charlotte Selters (senior) said.

Several of the residents expressed feelings of disappointment, having expected to live in a house that created a strong sense of community.

“This is not what we signed up for. I think everyone is uncomfortable living here,” Alverez-Zakson said.

According to the Occidental College Annual Fire Safety & Security Report published in October, 17 incidents of on-campus burglary we reported to Campus Safety between 2011 and 2013, making it the third most frequently committed crime on campus behind liquor and drug law violations.

Mickaliger said there are certain ways in which students can attempt to protect their property from burglaries.

“I would encourage students to take precautions like locking their door, keeping their keys on them, not propping doors, un-propping a door if you see it open, securing valuables when you are not home, using strong locks on your bikes and reporting suspicious activity to Campus Safety,” Mickaliger said via email.