If awakened in the middle of the night to find a burglar inside your home, call 911 and don't confront the intruder unless forced to, Police Chief Donie Lee said Wednesday night at a rare public meeting held in response to the unsolved "Graveyard Thief" crime spree.
"Anytime someone enters a home that is occupied, it's a dangerous situation," Lee said. "We don't know how the homeowner's going to react. It's dangerous for the burglar."
Burglaries in this portion of the city's historic district spiked sharply in late 2013 -- numbering 40 between Sept. 15 and Dec. 15 -- Lee said.
In response, Key West police have stepped up both undercover and uniformed patrols, closing several unrelated cases in the process; asked the FBI to work on "enhancing" images of two suspects; collected physical evidence from six separate crime scenes; run fingerprints through state and county databases; and searched pawn shop records.
All with no luck, Lee said.
Four arrests have been made in burglaries, but none of the suspects were linked to the cemetery neighborhood cases, Lee said after the meeting.
Locals who gathered for the sit-down they asked to have with Lee learned his department has yet to piece together the puzzle of the graveyard burglaries.
"We are doing everything we can possibly do," Lee said. "We're not perfect; we fall short. You may have not been provided service you deserve. I need to know that so we can correct it and ensure we're doing everything possible to try and apprehend this person. We really do want to take this person off the streets."
But Lee said he didn't believe any of the burglaries involved someone forcing open doors or windows, although at least one resident in attendance said she locked her doors before waking up to find her laptop and iPhone missing from the bed she was sleeping in.
"I was broken into on Dec. 11 while I slept," Sandra Duffey told Lee.
The responding officer told her she must have left her doors unlocked, Duffey said.
"I didn't see the hole in the roof he could have come through," Duffey said. "I am very dismayed by this."
Lee said, "If that's what he told you, I apologize. If we fell short, then I apologize to you."
The perpetrator may be female or male, Lee said, handing out copies of images he said are of two separate suspects police believe are connected to the spree that has frightened and frustrated residents with some of the most coveted street addresses in Key West.
The images include a security snapshot from a corner store in which a baseball-capped man sporting a beard stubble and a dark-colored hooded sweatshirt, and a ghostly image captured inside a Galveston Lane home of a baseball-capped person.
Residents asked for advice on what to do if they happen upon an intruder in the kitchen overnight.
Lee advised against anyone trying to tackle an intruder, although he pointed out that the burglar hasn't tried to physically harm anyone.
"No one has been attacked, thank God," Lee said.
But the police chief said later, "You have a right to defend yourself in your home. I'm not telling you to become vigilantes."
Without mentioning Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, Lee alluded to state statutes that allow people to strike back when attacked.
City Commissioners Teri Johnston and Jimmy Weekley attended the meeting, along with Mayor Craig Cates. But only police officers spoke.
"Just make sure it's locked," said Officer Steve Torrence of windows and doors. "Invest in a good lock. These cheap $29 locks you can kind of shake and push open; those just are not very secure. A good lock, a dead bolt and light, light, light and more light."
Torrence said if people want to crack their windows open a little at night, do what he does: "Put a pin in the window so the window can only be opened two or three inches."
The almost two-hour long meeting began late to give the large crowd a chance to settle into the ferry terminal seats.
Even with a few complaints about police performance from those who have fallen prey to the burglar who brazenly returns two or three times to some targeted homes, the meeting's tone stayed respectful throughout -- no loud voices, no arguments.
But a constant theme arose from residents: Improve communication.
"In the future when there's a crime spree going on, can you make a bigger effort to communicate that information?" a man asked Lee, who agreed to do so.
"We need a computer geek," said Christine Russell. "Let's get some computer geeks sitting out there and let's work together and get cameras in our houses. This guy is coming back two and three times because you're replacing your iPhones and he's taking it again. We can catch this person."