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First Light: Break In!

First Light: Break In!

The phone woke me at midnight. I snatched it up.

“Hey, I’ve made a stop. There’s a pile of stuff in the rig.” Brett wasn’t long on words. He told me where, then: “I’ll wait to search it.”

“Be right there.” I threw on some clothes and motored the mile into town, parking on a dark back street across from the cruiser. Through the winking blue glare on its windscreen I saw a woman. Young. Hispanic. The deputy waved me to her SUV, a tired Chevy.

“That bow case caught my eye.” Brett reached in, pulled it onto the tailgate, flipped the latches. “Well, well.” The foam held two AR-15 rifles. Mine. “She wasn’t alone. The guy jumped before I hit the lights.”

He emptied the cargo. The Mathews bow lay under dirty laundry, with a half-dozen arrows and a Leupold scope yanked from another rifle. “Will she talk?” I asked.

“She doesn’t know how this hardware climbed into her car, but we’ll take her in to chat.” Brett did not sound hopeful. “Time matters,” he said. “It’s been three days.”

■■■

Three days.

I’d been photographing rifles that morning. About noon I hurried out the door to join other school board members for a rare daytime meeting. Two hours later I returned. My stomach knotted. The kitchen door gaped open. No laptop on the counter. No rifles on the table. My camera remained, a lonely sentinel on its tripod. I raced down the hall. Revolver and shotgun had vanished from bedside.

Instantly I knew the gun room had been plundered. The door was still ajar. Rifles, scattered like jackstraws on the floor, lapped at wall racks gap-toothed by the fallen and the missing. Stunned, I dialed 911. Absent in this wreckage were heavy-barreled bolt guns on bipods, a fine old Springfield target rifle, two .375s I’d used in Africa, a super-accurate Sako, and at least two dozen others. The adjoining office had been stripped of the AR-15s stacked in its corners.

Deputies arrived. I’d not yet handled the rifles knocked down. “Shouldn’t you dust for prints?”

They stood, slack-jawed. Finally: “They probably used gloves.” Then, as afterthought: “They’ll be back. They left too much.”

But they’d taken plenty. My mental cash register whirred past $40,000, $50,000 then $60,000. A larger sweep would reveal the loss of three recurve bows, costly carbon arrows, a new Stihl chainsaw. I’d discover too late for a European trip that my passport had been stolen, too.

■■■

Given the types and values of the stolen arms, this crime got the attention of law officers as far away as 80 miles. Newspapers in two big rural counties flanking my home ran features on the heist, with photos of several firearms. But authorities got no help from the woman trucking the ARs. Time ticked by. “We think they might be buried,” an investigator told me. A dig yielded nothing. “Could be in Mexico by now,” Brett conceded. More days passed. A lever rifle turned up with loot from another burglary. SWAT raids followed tips from the cell-mate of a drug dealer who’d boasted of stealing “a bunch of guns.” In a sweep that brought drug arrests, my .500 carbine emerged, badly rusted.

That was a year ago. No recoveries since. Only two people have been prosecuted for possessing my firearms. Both drew light jail sentences, albeit one had a long arrest record. “Don’t expect restitution,” warned Brett, “even if it’s assessed. These people never pay.”

My homeowner’s insurance made a tiny dent in the loss. “Most we can pay for guns is $2,500,” my agent reminded me, apologetically. Insurance riders to boost payment for firearms theft have a place, but they’re very expensive. Other items bumped the amount upward. I received $2,500 from the NRA. Long a Life member, I’ve returned the favor by upgrading to Endowment status.

Out-of-pocket, this burglary cost me roughly $40,000. Then there’s the damage to rifles spilled from racks. Still palpable, if less quantifiable: a searing sense of violation. Our house has been invaded and diminished by people Alice and I would never invite into our lives.

We don’t fear these criminals. In fact, I lay awake many nights after the burglary hoping they’d return when I was home. But anger is destructive. Losing your charity to a gang of thieves, you become just a little like them.

■■■

Was I at fault for not better securing my house? On a hill in the middle of a fenced 30 acres on a dead-end road, it seemed to me a high-risk target. But it’s vulnerable in this age of cell phones. Surely the crooks had planned, knowing I’d attend the meeting (though it wasn’t publicized) and stationing a lookout at the last road intersection.

“Weren’t your guns in a safe?” I’ve been asked. Writing about firearms for a living, I have several out every day. I own more than a few and over the course of a year photograph dozens I don’t own. Snaking guns in and out of safes takes time and inevitably scuffs them. Yes, you can fill a room with safes for less than $60,000.

I do regret, after the burglary, not insisting on a thorough dusting for fingerprints. Prints can help recover guns and convict criminals. So can numbers, of course. In this I was derelict. My records should have listed every firearm: make, model, serial number plus value estimates (including scopes, which can add significantly to replacement cost).

My books and magazine articles, easily Googled, are markers for crooks seeking guns. But your shooting activities can also alert predators. From stickers on your truck and “big buck” photos in the local paper to use of a shooting range, you’re visible. I’m proud to be a hunter and a competitive shooter. But I don’t flaunt my guns where they might draw the attention of thieves.

These days, when Alice and I plan to leave for more than an hour, I alert neighbors and the men who work in my small orchard. Local deputies understand when I request additional patrols. We’ve installed bars and additional locks, will soon have electronic eyes and alerts. We’ve hidden and barricaded valuables. When prosecution is vigorous enough to deter criminals, perhaps we won’t have to.

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