Thursday, November 02, 2006

“I Like to Keep an Eye on Things”

Northeast Times profiles vigilant tenet.

Michael Hatch admits that he has a bit of a wild streak in his persona, but he’s not crazy enough to think he’s immune from the crooks that prowl Northeast Philadelphia.

Hatch has never held an official law enforcement job, but in the last few years he’s become a regular Joe Friday in his Bustleton neighborhood.

The 54-year-old has helped authorities nab a wagon full of thieves, burglars, vandals and assorted scofflaws in and around his Roosevelt Boulevard apartment building, thanks to his astute observation skills and his personal investment in security equipment.

Hatch has bought and installed eight closed-circuit cameras around his apartment. Last month, the devices helped him make his biggest bust to date — he led police to two men who allegedly burglarized his building.

He doesn’t like to take too much credit for the pinch, however. He prefers to thank the guys who actually have been supplying the cash for all of the security equipment through the years.

"The people who destroy my property pay for my cameras," Hatch said in the wake of the recent break-in.

The incident occurred on Oct. 6, shortly after 5 a.m. Hatch, an early riser, had already been up for about a half-hour and was eating breakfast at his computer.

At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary on the two video screens that he uses to monitor the exterior images picked up by his security cameras.

But things changed in a hurry.

"A couple of guys started walking up the driveway and walked in (the building) like they live here. And the door was unlocked," Hatch said.

Normally, the exterior door to the two-story building is accessible only to residents and guests that they allow to enter the premises. Each apartment also has an interior entrance, but residents also keep belongings in the basement in designated storage spaces.

The basement door is intentionally left unlocked and open, although the individual storage units have locks on them.

Hatch was suspicious of the two visitors from the start. They didn’t look familiar and, he figured, it was awfully early for one of his neighbors to be getting any company.

"I thought they might be going upstairs, but I didn’t hear them going up the steps," he said.

Instead, all was quiet. Yet his cameras didn’t pick up anybody leaving the building. The only feasible explanation, then, was that they had gone into the basement.

"I waited a few minutes until they got comfortable, then I went downstairs," Hatch said.

Some might consider him foolish or even a bit crazy for even considering confronting the invaders. But he grabbed a knife for defense and went anyway.

The basement door, the one usually propped open, was conspicuously shut — which Hatch took as another sign that the men were up to no good.

When he opened the door and poked his head into the room, the men almost jumped through the ceiling.

"I said, ‘Hi, how you doing?’ And they said ‘Hi’ too," Hatch said. "Then I went back upstairs and called police. They stayed. I guess they figured that everything was OK."

When police arrived, the men gave an excuse that they were "waiting for a ride," Hatch said. "So the police gave them a ride down to the (7th) district."

Several of the storage stalls in the basement appeared to have been breached, with wooden boards pried from their doors and chicken-wire fencing pushed to the side.

Items belonging to building residents had been stacked near the exit, including toolboxes and a surfboard. Hatch gave a witness statement to police investigators.

"I showed them (my) cameras and told them to let (the suspects) know that they walked in on eight cameras, let them know they should go back to burglary school," Hatch said.

The apartment dweller is getting pretty used to the whole police routine by now.

He first moved there about six years ago, while recovering from a major auto crash that nearly cost him his life. He started getting into security or "spy" equipment after someone vandalized his van.

"My brother-in-law, he has a house and cameras on it. That’s where I picked it up," Hatch said.

"I had my van parked across the street. I woke up one morning and the window was broken. I was new here. From that, I got one camera."

A few months later, his investment paid dividends.

At the time, Hatch was selling a car that was parked outside the building. A teenager and his buddies showed up one day and asked him about the vehicle.

But while one youth did the talking, a couple of others seemed more interested in an old Jaguar that Hatch owned at the time.

That night, Hatch woke up to noise from Roosevelt Boulevard and discovered that someone had ripped the hood ornament from the Jag. Hatch went back to his security tape and saw that the same group of kids had returned and done the damage.

Using contact information provided by the one teen, he tracked down the others, contacted their parents and eventually got them to pay for the damage, under his threat of reporting the incident to police.

"I got seven-hundred fifty dollars out of them," he said.

Another time, Hatch saw a man "poking around" the building. That night, the man returned and tried to enter the building through the back door.

"He said he was trying to stay warm," said Hatch, who called police to get rid of the guy, but didn’t follow up with his complaint in court.

Yet another time, Hatch claims, he helped stop a potential road-rage incident on the Boulevard when he told an angry and armed motorist who had stopped in the middle of the street that cameras were watching his every move.

The devices benefit his neighbors, too. Besides looking out for his fellow apartment dwellers, he can keep an eye on the busy parking lot of a nearby restaurant. He has called police to report car break-ins there.

Over the years, Hatch figures he’s spent well over $1,000 on surveillance equipment at places like Radio Shack and local "spy" shops. The devices have dropped in price significantly in that time, primarily because the technology has become more commonplace, he said.

Though some renters might think it should be the landlord’s responsibility to install needed security measures, Hatch is a firm believer in taking responsibility for one’s own security.

"When you move in, you put up your own stuff," he said.

The cameras not only help him protect his property; they also give him peace of mind.

"I’d never live without them now," Hatch said. "I like to keep an eye on things. You get used to it."

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