As Foreclosed Homes Empty, Crime Arrives

By Jonathan Mummolo and Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 27, 2008

The growing foreclosure crisis has forced suburban law enforcement agencies to tackle a new challenge: policing empty houses.

As evictions mount and many houses remain unsold for months, even years, vacant properties have become havens for squatters, vandals, thieves, partying teenagers and worse, officials said.

In Springfield this winter, Fairfax County police found blood inside a vacant house and traced it to an injured sexual assault suspect who had been hiding there before he stole a car and fled. He was eventually caught in Maryland, police said.

About the same time, a 27-year-old woman was arrested by Loudoun County sheriff's deputies after she, her husband and two children moved into a foreclosed house in Ashburn and allegedly tried to use forged documents to convince officers that she was the new owner, officials said.

"These people even managed to get the electricity turned on in their names," said Sgt. Shelby Ruby, a Loudoun deputy. "That's some nerve, right there."

In some localities, officers are targeting vacant houses on regular patrols, using maps of foreclosed properties as guides, while working with community watch groups to identify trouble spots. Empty driveways, overgrown lawns, realty signs, lockboxes and "No Trespassing" notices in windows are all signals to would-be violators, police said.

"The bad guys, the criminals, that's how they think," Fairfax County Police Lt. Daniel Janickey said.

Standing in the weeds of a trash-strewn yard at the house where the sexual assault suspect hid, Janickey pointed past the broken latch of a shed door toward a folded, worn mattress inside.

Across the property, more remnants of squatters -- clothes, beer cans and a used tube of toothpaste -- were strewn around a playhouse. A makeshift wooden step had been placed at the edge of the yard to help people hop a fence and cut across the lawn.

Authorities in the 38-square-mile Franconia police district are stepping up efforts to monitor an estimated 300 to 400 vacant houses. "I think it's just unusual to see a community like this in Fairfax County," Janickey said. "There's no one there for accountability."

Janickey's officers have compiled a list of vacant houses that hangs in the station's roll call room. A sergeant also posts pictures of known flophouses in the district. Patrol officers check to make sure that doors of vacant houses are locked and look for signs of vandalism and squatting.

In many cases, damage is inflicted by frustrated former homeowners.

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