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Protecting the Summer Home
By Leif Enger
November 4, 1999 1999
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As thousands of Minnesotans lock up their lake cabins for winter, many wonder whether everything will be intact when they return. Seasonal homes are favorite targets for burglars, and protection against property crime has been a high-profile subject since a Minnesota man set a booby trap in his cabin and wounded an intruder. In the Brainerd lakes area, summer homes provide a challenge for law enforcement; and big returns for home-security companies.

Minnesotans love the lakes and their lake cabins. See more in our section on the changing lakes from Mainstreet Radio.
JACK AND JUDY Wallschlaeger's neighbors know: when they're not home, don't try to go in and borrow a tool.

Burglers visited the Wallschlaegers, who live fulltime on Whitefish Lake after decades of weekend visits, two years ago. It wasn't bad as break-ins go. The culprits smashed a sliding glass door and got away with radio gear, a camera, and some .22 shells. The Wallschlaegers installed an alarm system soon thereafter. Jack says he feels safer now, though he hasn't caught anyone but himself.
Jack: I have inadvertently set the alarm off a few times, and usually there's somebody that comes running down the driveway with a shotgun -- "Hi, Russ. Oh, it's you."
Crow Wing County is classic lake-country burglar bait. With a year-round population of 40,000 thousand, the county draws another quarter-million visitors in the summer. Come fall, many of them leave behind cabins sitting quiet and empty 'til April. Jack Wallschlaeger, who's on the board of the Whitefish Property Owners Association, says two-thirds of the members are gone for the year. And the sheriff's in Brainerd, 20 minutes away.
Jack: We don't get a lot of protection from law enforcement up in this neck of the woods. In the summertime you may see a deputy's car once or twice a month, but, boy, in the wintertime I've never seen one around here.
The topic of cabin crime has received generous ink this fall because of the Leonard Miller case. Miller's the Minnesota resident who, frustrated by repeated burglaries, booby-trapped his Wisconsin cabin with a shotgun. It went off. Later, Miller was arrested; so was an intruder, with pellets in his legs. Crow Wing County chief deputy Dan Gottsch says Miller's action was neither admirable, nor surprising.
Gottsch: I can't condone the man's behavior. I can understand the man's behavior. I've been a victim myself. I've looked victims in the eyes for 25 years. I've seen the frustration.
Frustration is the common fruit of unsolved property crime, and Gottsch says the scope of rural burglary has widened in the past decade. In the past, thieves sold stolen items to a fence, or middleman, who then resold them to established markets. Gottsch says the fence has been replaced by the pawn industry, which has followed the rise of Indian gaming.
Gottsch: The pawnshops have become the place these people sell their wares. Years ago, a fence wouldn't buy, say, bedsheets, or antiques, or settings of china -- but a pawnshop will. Nintendo, tape recorder, take it to a pawnshop and they'll give you so much on the dollar.
Wisconsin's Barron County, where Leonard Miller set his trap, has seen a rapid rise in burglaries. Crow Wing followed a similar pattern through the late '80s and mid-'90s. Then, in 1997, the county started a two-person investigative unit focusing exclusively on property crime.
Gottsch: These officers on the prop crimes task force, they don't get child neglect, they don't get child-abuse cases. Often they don't even take the initial calls on burglary. We want them to dedicate their time to follow an investigation.
The results: a higher arrest rate, and a 20 percent decline in reported burglaries.

Also claiming responsibility for these numbers is the home-security industry. Open the Brainerd Yellow Pages and you'll find no fewer than nine companies. At one of them, Total Security, president Doug Button demonstrates a system that'll sound an alarm, then call local authorities automatically.

The system purchase and installation costs several thousand dollars, plus a monthly monitoring fee. Pay more and it'll also turn on your furnace, lights, raise or lower your window shades, take phone messages and start the music on your stereo. Button says the only problem is, these alarms are triggered by movement. And not every movement is a burglar.
Button: Even natural things, a curtain blowing from a furnace duct, it could be an animal -- rodents, even a little spider making a web in front of a motion detector, if he crawls across the lens that'll set it off.
In the summer, Crow Wing County deputies respond to three or four false alarms a day, sometimes driving 20 minutes each way. Button says the systems are improving as quickly as technology allows. That's not fast enough for the Crow Wing County Board, which recently instituted a penalty. Alarm owners get one freebie; after that, it's a $100 fine per false alarm.