Beaufort News

Thieves make most of dark Beaufort High parking lot

Losing the game was bad enough.

Eleven Beaufort High School football players returned from a 35-point loss at Goose Creek High School at about 11:30 p.m. Nov. 4 to find their school's parking lot littered with shards of glass, their cars damaged and their stereos and other belongings stolen.

"To say it was a mess would be an understatement," said Scott Dennis. His son's 2000 Chevrolet Blazer was among the cars broken into.

"They broke the front driver's side window, the front passenger side window and broke one of the windshield wipers off the back as an act of vandalism, I guess. They stole his stereo, which had a pop-off face, but instead of popping it off, they took an ax and cut his dashboard in half to get it out."

Police say the players were the victims of thieves who have likely used the secluded parking lot's dark and isolated conditions to their advantage.

"The parking lot at the high school is isolated, and there's a really good natural screening back there with the trees and the shrubs and brush," said Beaufort Police Lt. Darrel Gruel. "You should generally try to park somewhere well-lit, but there's not really a prime location in that parking lot."

Not a new phenomena

Before last week's break-ins, Beaufort Police say they had been notified twice about thefts from cars parked at the high school since school began in August, but similar crimes are hardly rare at the high school,city police records indicate.

Eleven thefts were reported last school year, including thefts in April from two school buses belonging to visiting athletic teams competing at the high school, according to Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy.

Police arrested Jermaine Butler, 19, of Lady's Island in April for stealing from one of the buses, and charged a juvenile male with breaking into the other, Clancy said.

Butler pleaded guilty to one felony count of breaking into motor vehicles in May and enrolled in the state's 90-day Shock Incarceration Program, according to court records.

But not all of the thefts have resulted in arrests, and the school's surveillance system has offered investigators few leads in helping catch those stealing from cars parked at the school, Gruel said.

"The surveillance system seems to be designed to keep an eye on the building itself," Gruel said. "The further you get from the school, the less you can see on those cameras. If they lit up the lot like the football field, we'd be able to see what a suspect is wearing or what they're driving. All those cameras really pick up is motion. You can tell if someone's moving, but that's about it."

Chris Barrow, the district's security coordinator, referred questions about security in the parking lot to Jesse Washington, the district's director for school and community services.

Several attempts to reach Washington for comment were unsuccessful.

Jim Bequette, who represents Lady's Island on the Beaufort County Board of Education, said school administrators should make sure the cameras are operable and work with local police to protect cars parked at all area schools.

"We've got to make sure the security cameras work and notify the local police when cars are going to be left there at night so they can conduct extra (patrols)," Bequette said. "That's about as much as you can do unless you have a guard there full-time."

What's next

In response to last week's break-ins, Principal Dan Durbin said he and school district officials are working to determine whether more lighting or security is needed in the parking lot.

"We are reviewing our security plan and looking at places where we could add additional lighting and talking with the police department about the possibility of adding more (patrols) in that area," Durbin said.

According to department statistics, half of the thefts reported last year and this year occurred during school hours.

Durbin said increased patrols of the lot by the high school's school resource officer, and the installation of gates restricting access to the student parking lot should reduce the frequency of daytime thefts.

Until more is done to secure the lot, Dennis said he doesn't think his family's vehicles are safe there at night.

"Am I comfortable parking our cars up there until something is done? Not at all," Dennis said. "We love the school, we love this community. We just don't love the nighttime."