Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard addresses a May 13  town hall meeting at Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard addresses a May 13 town hall meeting at Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills.

Photo by Patricia O'Blenes

Sheriff hosts town hall to address high-end home robberies

By: Mark Vest | Birmingham-Bloomfield Eagle | Published May 16, 2024


BLOOMFIELD HILLS — A recent town hall meeting drew more attention to an issue that has been a source of concern for some Oakland County residents going back at least as far as last year.

More than 200 people attended a meeting at Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills May 13 to address concerns about international organized gangs that have been targeting affluent neighborhoods in the county, according to a press release from state Rep. Donni Steele.

“Obviously, the Bloomfields have been very much in the crosshairs, Birmingham, Novi, Franklin, Farmington, Hills, Oakland Township, Rochester. I mean, you can name a bunch of them, but, obviously, the Bloomfields have been very much part of the targeting,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said at the event.

He said that two teams have been arrested in Oakland County.

“All seven were from Chile and violated the Visa Waiver Program.” He said that just the Chilean gangs alone are estimated to have more than 100 teams in the country of three-six people each. He said they study homes with cameras and trail cams to research their targets.

“Sometimes they’ve used trackers on cars, and sometimes we’ve now seen drones. … So they try to determine when you move, when you come and go, when you’re out of town, when you’re out to dinner, what your patterns of life are.”

He said Michigan has seen mainly Chilean crime gangs, but other parts of the U.S. are seeing gangs from Columbia.

The Chileans criminal crews are contact averse and will flee if they see someone at the home, Bouchard said.

“Columnbians are not so contact averse, so they have been more violent in other parts of the country. We’ve seen mostly the Chileans. … That has been a pattern, but it’s not something we can count on. We know for a fact that Columbians were in our county two weeks ago.”

He said the Visa Waiver Program is part of the problem because it does not include vital safeguards. Currently, it is only offered for Chile.

“We’ve asked the (Biden) administration to shut the VWP off until there’s some kind of handle on how many teams and people are coming here, because that doesn’t mean they can’t come visit — just have to get a traditional visa. … But so far that program has not been terminated or even put on pause, and in fact, Columbia has an application pending now for the VWP. So that’s a concern to us, because we can’t get a handle on how many teams are operating here and we may catch a team or two or three or even 10, but if there’s a 100 and 100 more in the pipeline — because they’re well trained.”

He said that the crews come in with equipment to breach the home, jam the wireless alarm systems and carry out heavy safes.

“They’re all ninja’d up,” he said.

He recommended having a hard-wired motion detector on every floor, considering a safety deposit box instead of a safe, and putting the home’s police department number in your phone contacts so you can call the right number if you see someone on cameras while you are out of town, since a 911 call would route to the vacation-area police. He also said people should not announce their tips on social media.

“One of the best ways to prevent yourself from being a crime victim is to be situationally aware and to know steps you can take to better protect yourself and your family,” Bouchard said in a press release. In December, Bouchard organized a task force of more than 20 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies — the Southeast Michigan Capture/Arrest/Prosecute task force — and the town hall event was sponsored by Michigan Realtors, the North Oakland County Board of Realtors, and the Greater Metropolitan Association of Realtors.

The meeting was hosted by Bouchard, with Bloomfield Township Police Chief James Gallager and Bloomfield Hills Police Department Capt. Tom Van Simaeys.

Last September, Bouchard held a news conference about a transnational crime ring consisting of organized and trained thieves targeting certain areas of the United States and breaking into homes, with the intent of stealing cash and jewelry, and high-end clothing, purses and products.

Teams of criminals from Central and South America have reportedly targeted wealthy homes, stealing millions of dollars worth of jewelry, cash and other items, according to the release.

Last year it was reported that the thieves had begun targeting homes with the highest net value in Oakland Township.

Bouchard reported that the belief is that the thieves have entered the country illegally across the southern border or through the Visa Waiver Program.

They typically break in around 5-9 p.m., preferring homes that are isolated and back up to wooded areas, trails and golf courses, and in which nobody is home.

Bouchard reported that the thieves purchase fake identifications, often overstay their visas and cancel their return dates.

At the townhall meeting, Bouchard warned that international gangs arrive in teams sent intentionally for robberies, with each gang member having a backpack with specialized equipment, including breaching tools, alarm jams and more.

“I don’t think people realize the full extent of what’s happening in Oakland County,” Steele stated in the release. “The number of people at the town hall showed just how scared people are. Homeowners in Oakland County are living in constant fear that their homes may be next on the hit list. This is the kind of fear that makes you jump at every shadow you see in the window and go to sleep with the lights on.”

Steele said she supports a House Republican plan to target criminals illegally entering the country on behalf of transnational criminal organizations. House Bill 5650 would increase penalties for crimes committed to benefit transnational crime organizations and for felonies committed by individuals who return to the country illegally after being deported, according to the release.

“We’re not talking about kids stealing stuff out of a garage,” Steele stated. “These are professional criminals who illegally entered our country to wreak havoc on our communities.”

The bill was referred to the House Government Operations Committee, according to the release.

Making sure that home security systems are on and tested, with quality cameras and layered systems throughout a home, along with securing valuables in a heavy-duty safe that is anchored, are some measures that homeowners can take.

Residents are also encouraged to contact law enforcement if they see something suspicious.