What started with a small grumble from a few Nikiski residents had built up to a loud roar Wednesday night.
Hundreds of frustrated citizens gathered for a town hall meeting in search for answers to the rash of property crimes that have plagued the area. As people continued to file into the Nikiski Recreation Center community library, the forum moved into the gymnasium to accommodate the crowd.
With a packed gym, many in the audience raised their hand when asked if they had experienced theft against them. Voices in the crowd asked for more help from the Alaska State Troopers, local lawmakers, the justice system and their neighbors to come together against the crimes committed against them.
Nikiksi resident Ann Krogseng organized the meeting along with several other community members who have been personally affected by burglary and vandalism of their homes and businesses in recent weeks. She said a group of seven families gathered at her house Monday night and estimated their stolen losses and damage at $300,000.
“My initial feeling was shock,” Krogseng said. “Then disbelief. Then I got pissed. How dare they come into what we worked so hard to create. We work hard everyday and then someone comes in and easily takes it away.”
Captain Andy Greenstreet, Soldotna trooper detachment commander, said so far this year, 22 burglaries have been reported in the Nikiski area. Troopers responded to 30 burglaries in 2012 and 38 in 2013.
Greenstreet said while investigators have seen an uptick in late summer and early fall they cannot pinpoint one certain area in Nikiski. He said it was good to see such a large crowd come together because it shows they care about their community and want to focus on solving the problem together.
“Nobody likes to be a victim of a crime either at their business or own home,” Greenstreet said. “Having gone through that before I was a trooper I can understand, that’s why I wear the uniform.”
In response to the concerns for more patrol in the Nikiski area, Greenstreet has formed a crime suppression unit made up of trooper Casey Hershberger and trooper Matt Ezell, who have a combined 20 years of experience. The unit will be afforded the time and effort to dive into investigations in Nikiski and will work with the Drug Enforcement Unit and both the Soldotna and Kenai Police Departments.
“You don’t have a burglary issue, you have a drug issue,” Greenstreet said to the crowd.
Greenstreet said Hershberger and Ezell are two dynamic troopers who are well suited for the detail and are well respected among their peers. Hershberger is a former Kenai Police officer and is familiar with known criminals in the Kenai and Nikiski area, he said.
People that attended the meeting signed an open letter to the Alaska State Trooper Commissioner Gary Folger requesting a trooper sub-station in Nikiski. A major complaint from the audience was the lack of trooper presence in Nikiski.
Major Matt Leveque, trooper deputy director from Anchorage, said the troopers are understaffed and have had trouble filling vacancies because of the lack of qualified applicants. Troopers have 16 vacancies statewide, he said.
“If we leave a trooper (in Nikiski) and a call comes up in Sterling, he would have to leave,” Leveque said. “It is not practical.”
Greenstreet said between the five trooper posts in his detachment, four troopers are in Girdwood, three are stationed at Crown Point, two in Cooper Landing, one in Anchor Point. In Soldotna, which hosts three recruits in training, 14 total troopers are responsible for the entire central Kenai Peninsula.
“I don’t have the numbers to service the entire community,” Greenstreet said. “Looking at the bigger picture, calls against people, like domestic violence, have to take priority over property crimes.”
Some people in the audience expressed their hesitation to turn people in out of fear of repercussions.
Greg Russell from Peninsula Crime Stoppers said people can place anonymous tips. Russell, a former Soldotna police officer and Kotzebue Police Chief, said he understands that family members may not want to make matters worse if it’s their relatives who are responsible for property crime and drug use.
Crime Stoppers encourages members of the community to assist local law enforcement agencies in the fight against crime by overcoming the two key elements that inhibit community involvement: fear and apathy.
Residents also had the opportunity to join a neighborhood watch list.
“They only succeed if we do nothing,” Russell said.
The audience was encouraged to bring forth information to the troopers that would help in their investigations. During and after the meeting, citizens came up and shared tips.
“I think we broke through those barriers tonight because we had people give us good credible information,” Greenstreet said. “I wanted (Hershberger and Ezell) to relate to the crowd and hear first hand the emotion in the room and what people are going through.”
Property crimes in Nikiski are not a new phenomenon.
Nikiski resident Dave Carpenter said 20 years ago residents came together to talk about crime and said some of the same things about additional law enforcement, neighborhood watch and Crime Stoppers.
“In our society all the problems come back to the people because we allow it,” Carpenter said. “The revolving door that is our justice system is so screwed up a criminal has more rights than the victim. I don’t care for it.”
Greenstreet said he talked to the Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders, who assured him the DA’s office is committed to prosecute property crimes to the fullest extend of the law.
“Property crimes by nature are very challenging to prosecute successfully,” Greenstreet said. “We are hopeful we can provide thorough investigations which would lead to strong cases.”
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski said the House passed legislation last year that would help some of the problems Nikiski residents are having with thefts on commercial property. House Bill 305 requires junk yards and salvage yards to keep records of who brings in material, such as a drivers license or vehicle registration, he said.
“If troopers or someone comes in and says ‘that was stolen from my property’ and can prove it, it allows troopers to have a lead to go on and convict,” Chenault said. “He-said, she-said doesn’t hold up in court.”
Billie Jefferies, owner of Ground Up Custom Builders in Nikiski said he’s had drug addicts steal materials from his job site including lumber, wiring and car parts, things they could sell for money. He said meth and heroin are the problem because it has taken over certain individual’s lives and has made them career criminals.
“People know who they are,” he said. “There are six meth houses in Nikiski with trash stacked to the roof and 15 vehicles in the driveway. People need to pay attention to what’s going on.”
Felix Martinez, owner of M & M Market, said while talk of incorporating and raising taxes to add a police service area to Nikiski is all well and good, it would not come for a few years down the road. He said now this is a time when people in the community need to come together.
“In the meantime we need to be neighbors for each other and look after each other’s property,” he said. “It’s time to come together as a community.”