Barton County business owners have noticed a surge in burglaries in recent years, and frustration is running high. In 2014, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s report on crimes known to law enforcement, Great Bend was number three in the state of Kansas for number of burglaries per 1,000 residents. Only Pittsburgh and Coffeyville were higher.
On any given day, readers of the Great Bend Tribune’s “on the record” find burglary reports, as well as the perpetrators apprehended, charged, later released on bond. Often, law enforcement has acknowledged, many go right back to burglarize the next place. Meanwhile business owners are left trying to pick up the pieces.
Some have installed both high and low tech security and surveillance systems, and spend time monitoring the area around their businesses, noting unfamiliar vehicles and people patrolling the area. But no system is foolproof and everyone has to sleep sometime, and that’s when criminals strike.
One Great Bend businessman, Chad Ehrlich, has seen his businesses broken into four times in less than two years, and justice still eludes him.
Beginning in June, 2014, Ehrlich on four occasions contacted the Barton County Sheriff’s Office to report criminal damage to multiple vehicles at his place of business. He operates Hannigan’s Antique Autos and Nobody Else’s Auto Recycling, both located on U.S. 281 north of Great Bend.
The perpetrators threw an unknown object through the front window of his office to gain entrance to the building there. They proceeded to do $600 worth of damage to the windows of two Buicks and one Pontiac.
About a week later, Nobody Else’s was hit again, and this time several motor vehicle parts and accessories were stolen. The haul included radiators valued at $500, damaged engines worth $1,600, and stolen aluminum wheels worth $450. Many of the parts from older vehicles are made of valuable metals like aluminum and copper, and can be turned over at scrap yards for cash.
It happened again in October, but this time was different. Two burglars were identified on video tape stealing items from the yard. One, Greg Keenan, was identified at Morss Metals south of Great Bend when he tried to sell several stolen radiators there. The business contacted the Barton County Sheriff’s Department whose officers responded and arrested and charged Keenan and another party with two counts of possession of and concealing narcotics, and one count of obtaining control over known stolen property. The other person identified was not charged.
They recovered Ehrlich’s property and released it back to him, but he was advised to hang onto it as it was potential evidence.
Keenan was later convicted and is serving time now. But, that wasn’t the end of Ehrlich’s problems.
The fourth hit
Ehrlich was in the process of having a new storage building constructed on the site when, according to the details of BCSO case B15-C-0349, on March 13, 2015, Nobody Else’s was entered again using a bolt cutter this time. Contractors Steve Ohnmacht and Donald Newkirk of Steel Builders Construction Inc. and John Russell had some tools stolen. Ehrlich lost 30 radiators, 30 wheels and six batteries, the total value of which was $6,720, along with a 1999 Ford Triton F-350 worth $3,000.
Circumstantial evidence found
BCSO Detective David Paden was the lead on the investigation that took three months to complete.
Findings linked the Nobody Else’s event with others that had been reported in the area, and led to the arrest of Randy Dent on those other cases. Another suspect, a known associate of Dent’s, was identified also, and confessed to illegally entering a car at Nobody Else’s, from which a battery was stolen. Because the second suspect was never charged in this case, the Tribune will protect this person’s identity.
On Feb. 23, 2016, Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir and Detective Paden agreed to meet with the Great Bend Tribune to discuss evidence collected in relation to the incident. Paden explained the difference between circumstantial and direct evidence.
First, he created a verbal picture of watching a rabbit scampering across a snow-filled yard. “Those footprints are direct evidence that particular rabbit was in your yard,” he said.
But, say the next day you see another set of prints crossing your yard, but you didn’t actually see the rabbit scamper across the yard. That is only circumstantial evidence that same rabbit was in your yard again.
“That’s when you have to start comparing one set to the other to find similarities,” he said.
Both kinds of evidence were collected on Ehrlich’s case. There was direct evidence, in the form of a confession by a suspect. There were also fingerprints collected, but later the Kansas Bureau of Investigation determined they were not good enough for identification purposes.
There was also a lot of circumstantial evidence. Each piece of the puzzle, on its own, wouldn’t be enough to make a case, but put all together, the picture begins to clear. Even without every piece in place, circumstantial evidence can fill in enough of the picture for the average juror to be able to understand what they are looking at, Bellendir said.
The Tribune requested emails between the Detective Paden and the Barton County Attorney’s Office concerning the case through the Kansas Open Records Act. According to those emails, the unnamed suspect admitted to opening the doors of cars at Nobody Else’s to see if the dome light went on, indicating the battery had power. When one lit, he removed it so he could work unnoticed. The truck stolen the same night from the same place also had the dome light removed. Paden collected fingerprints, but these were determined to be not good enough to identify the culprit.
About a week later on March 21, Sheriff’s officers were called to All Seasons mobile home park north of Great Bend to investigate a suspicious vehicle was parked there. The vehicle belonged to the girlfriend of the unnamed suspect, and was one he was known to frequently occupy.
Later, a resident of All Seasons contacted the Sheriff to report the car had been parked there at 1 a.m. the previous night, and a large white pickup truck dropped people off close to it that night, and then left.
Stolen truck found
Deputy Bryan Vogel was also called to take a report on criminal damage to property near that location. He spotted an emblem from a Ford pickup, Triton V-10, on the ground near the damaged property. Later that day, Deputy Gary Leiker spotted a white Ford pickup in a field with Wyoming plates and a damaged driver’s side front end. On the passenger side, there was a Triton V-10 emblem. On the driver’s side, no emblem.
Detective Paden knew Nobody Else’s was nearby, so he took a photo and sent it to Ehrlich to see if it belonged to him. Sure enough, it did.
Paden met with Ehrlich who took him out to the spot where the Ford had been parked. There, an empty spot where the truck had clearly been parked.
Stolen merchandise found
The back of the truck was full of items, some of which were linked to other crimes. One item, a “Coach of the Year” plaque awarded to a local man, was found. Paden confirmed it too had been stolen.
Inside the cab, Paden found a receipt for spray paint located in the car. The receipt led him to the Dollar General store in Lyons. The store management was cooperative, and using the time and date stamp, they were able to narrow down the window and examine the video surveillance tapes. Randy Dent and the other suspect were seen shopping for and purchasing the paint.
The suspect, Paden learned, was in the Rice County jail on unrelated charges. During questioning, the suspect admitted to riding around in the truck with Dent, “scrapping.” This is the term used for searching for scrap metal that can then be sold to scrap yards. Bellendir noted during the interview it is a common crime committed throughout the state.
The suspect also confessed he had entered a white car located at Nobody Else’s that night. He had opened the door to see if the dome light turned on, indicating the battery was good. He removed the dome light so he would not attract attention.
Paden contacted Ehrlich, and the two went out to check vehicles in the yard. They found the white car with the dome light removed, and inside the car, a set of keys for a Ford pick-up of the same type found in the field.
No charges, no prosecution
With evidence collected and turned over to the county attorney to examine, the case was now out of the hands of the Barton County Sheriff’s Office. But, would it be enough to compel County Attorney Doug Matthews to file charges and prosecute the suspect? Ehrlich learned over 10 months later, the answer was no.
The county attorney, not law enforcement, determines if enough evidence has been collected in order to convict. In this case, Matthews didn’t feel there was enough, according to a letter sent to Ehrlich on Jan. 29, 2016.
“Please be advised that an offense report was received from law enforcement officials regarding an incident that occurred on 3/13/2015. At this time, this office has made a decision not to file charges in this matter. This decision is based on the following reason(s):
CA declined to prosecute due to a lack of sufficient evidence.
If you have any questions regarding this decision, please contact me at the above telephone number. Thank you for your time and cooperation in this matter.”
Ehrlich shared the letter with the Tribune, who attempted to get some answers from Matthews. Our first emailed attempt resulted in the following response to our questions about the process of determining whether or not there is sufficient evidence to try a case like Ehrlich’s.
Thank you for your e-mail.
I’ll try to respond to your questions as soon as possible.
However, I doubt that I will be able to meet with you this week to discuss Mr. Ehrlich’s matter. I have several court hearings
upcoming, along with three matters pending before either the Kansas Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals—all of which
are time sensitive.
I will contact you as soon as I have some time.
Since then, the Tribune has made repeated attempts to contact Matthews, but has received no response to our inquiries. Ehrlich, too, has left messages for Matthews, but has received no response.
Several other Tribune readers have contacted the Tribune with complaints about the lack of prosecution coming out of the Barton County Attorney’s Office. Their stories are similar.