The Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a spree of break-ins that occurred at Aspen Heights Harrisonburg over winter break. As of Wednesday, approximately 24 break-ins were reported across the student housing complex with a wide variety of items stolen.
According to the sheriff’s department, the number of reported break-ins nearly doubled over the weekend as students returned for the start of classes, and it’s likely to increase as they settle in. While Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said the doors on most houses were locked, unlocked windows appeared to be a common theme among houses that were robbed.
“Residents’ safety and peace of mind are our top priority and we are working to ensure anyone affected receives a prompt resolution,” Aspen said in a statement. “We remind residents that crime can happen anywhere and that they are the first step in preventing crime. Locking doors and windows to their homes, as well as vehicles, is a key crime prevention measure. At this time, Rockingham Sheriff’s Department has told us that there were no signs of forced entry into any home.”
However, many students in a GroupMe chat with about 300 Aspen residents reported kicked-down doors and broken windows at their home. Members of the same GroupMe reported that the Aspen gates were left open for hours at a time over break — including when the main office was closed for the holidays.
No injuries were reported as a result of the break-ins, and police are pursuing a few leads in relation to the cases. In most instances, RCSO said damage to the exterior of the homes was minimal because the suspects gained entry through an unlocked window. RCSO patrols student housing complexes over break, but because of the lack of damage, the break-ins weren’t apparent when patrol cars drove through the area.
The Aspen Heights Harrisonburg office declined to comment, and the housing complex’s corporate office said it didn’t want to disclose details regarding plans for additional security to the general public because the investigation is ongoing. However, Aspen did send another email to its residents following the break-ins.
“Our residents mean the world to us and we sincerely apologize to anyone who has experienced an invasion of their privacy due to a break in,” Aspen said in the statement released to residents.
Senior psychology major and Aspen resident Jay Chai stayed at his house for most of the break. When he heard about the break-ins from his neighbors and the Aspen GroupMe, he began checking houses for people who were away on break and worried about the possibility of a break-in.
“People are freaking out and I was just staying in Aspen,” Chai said. “I was just doing people a favor.”
After checking 13 houses, he noticed three of them were broken into and two had broken window screens, allowing for entry through a potentially unlocked window. According to Chai, the third house’s door appeared to have been kicked down.
Aspen notified the roommate of senior management major Ally Sammarco on Dec. 29 that it looked like their window screens had been removed and there were signs of a break-in. Sammarco had a Pandora bracelet, speaker, mini projector and Washington Nationals jersey stolen from her room.
“We definitely had our doors locked,” Sammarco said. “Aspen is telling us that we had one window that was unlocked, but we really don’t know why it would’ve been unlocked and we don’t really know how they got in because none of the screens were ripped or anything. The screens looked like they’d been tampered with but we don’t really know which window they came in or anything, so there’s been no details really provided.”
Sammarco and her roommate said Aspen told them RCSO is going to test a blood sample found on their window in an effort to find out who broke into the house. Because reports have come in at separate times over break, Hutcheson said it isn’t clear if all the break-ins occurred at once or by the same people.
Aspen Heights also reminded residents of the option they have to place a work order to set up a security system that sounds an alarm when there’s movement on the first floor. The system can be set up to notify local police. Both Aspen and the sheriff’s department encouraged students to do everything in their power to secure their homes, especially during breaks.
“The first step is to secure the actual building itself,” Hutcheson said. “Make sure you have all doors and windows locked. If there are valuables that you’re able to take with you, then of course we would encourage that, but certainly, just to make sure, double-check, triple-check that the doors, windows and everything are secure … Also we would remind them to do that for their vehicles.”
Hutcheson urged anyone who noticed suspicious activity leading up to the break-ins, has any knowledge of the robberies or hasn't yet reported a break-in to call RCSO.
Contact Thomas Robertson at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.