“We’re all law-abiding citizens who have had enough.”Tygh Lardner
The eighth time thieves broke into his property, Dwaine Dilworth had had enough. He’d been running Glacier Mobile Glass in Dawson Creek for 14 years, with few thefts. But in the last few months, his company van was stolen, his equipment ransacked, and the fence around his work compound cut eight times.
“I’ve hired security that costs me $5,600 a month,” he said. “That’s on top of my $46,000 a year in taxes to the City of Dawson Creek.”
Dilworth is one of dozens of business owners and local Dawson Creek residents outraged at a recent spike in crime they say has been caused by a small group of repeat offenders who aren’t being arrested or convicted for their crimes.
“The business community is furious right now,” said Tygh Lardner, owner of True North Fitness, who has been dealing with property crime, intrusions and attempted break-ins for months.
“People that are very calm, docile people are not so calm anymore. We’ve had enough.”
Nearly half of all calls for police service in the Dawson Creek area between January and October of last year related to property crime, with mental health-related and theft of vehicle calls both up by about 50 per cent, according to a report to city council by the Dawson Creek RCMP detachment. Break and enters to businesses rose by 138 per cent in the same period.
The situation has grown so volatile that Attorney General Niki Sharma appeared before Dawson Creek council on Monday to try and diffuse tensions.
“I do understand it must be very frustrating when you know who these people are, and you are seeing crime rise in the community,” Sharma said in a follow-up interview.
“I wanted to send a clear message to them that they have a partner in the government.”
But it doesn’t feel that way to many on the ground in the community.
Lardner woke up one morning two months ago to find someone in a truck brazenly pulling out of the driveway of his home with his 25-foot work trailer attached.
“They’d backed right in,”said Lardner. “They smashed the lock off, hooked it up and drove right off.”
Yet in small town B.C. – Dawson Creek has a population of less than 13,000 – everybody knows everybody. There are eyes everywhere. Lardner put the word out, and pretty soon he discovered that the truck that stole his trailer was itself stolen, and that his trailer had been spotted an hour away in Fort St. John.
Exasperated, he mobilized a crew to take it back.
“We went up there expecting to confront people, but luckily enough there was no one there,” he said.
“Our cops are so busy, they can’t be bothered to do that stuff.”
Direct action on the rise
That kind of direct action is also on the rise in Dawson Creek, as residents give up on the under-resourced RCMP to respond, and the seemingly-indifferent Crown prosecutors to press charges.
A makeshift local group, Citizens Take Action, has been out on the streets tracking criminals, catching them in the act, attempting to recover property and turning those they catch over to police.
The group, made up of business owners and locals, also writes letters to city council and holds its own weekly townhalls. The most recent meeting, Wednesday, attracted more than 150 people, and kickstarted a petition that will ultimately be sent to politicians at the BC legislature.
“We’ve been labelled a vigilante group, but we’re not that by any means,” said Lardner. “We’re doing anything we can in the confines of the laws to get our town the help it needs. We go to city council meetings. We advocate for police; we know they are overwhelmed.
“The amount of crime is out of hand. We’re trying to do everything we can, legally, to help them out, get extra funding, extra resources and make everyone aware of the problem.”
They do what police can’t
Sometimes, the group’s members do what police can’t — get back people’s stolen property.
“Our group has helped recover more vehicles in the past couple of months than the cops have been able to do in the past year,” said Lardner.
Still, with tensions rising, there is worry about what will happen next.
“I’m afraid that it’s going to start getting ugly between good citizens just trying to protect their properties,” said Dilworth, who employs 30 people at several glass locations in the region.
The issue of prolific offenders, who are repeatedly arrested but end up back on the street simply to repeat their crimes against someone else, has been a political hot-potato issue for months.
That may explain Sharma’s quick appearance before council, in which she dedicated most of her time to outlining what the province was already doing to combat the issue. Premier David Eby has promised new police, prosecutors, and a directive to Crown counsel to oppose the release on bail for the province’s worst repeat offenders.
But it’s a particularly complicated issue in communities like Dawson Creek, where people not only know when a person’s truck, snowmobile or quad has been stolen — they often actually see the thieves roaring around town in it, committing other crimes.
Everyone knows who’s responsible
Almost everyone knows who is responsible, said Mike Bernier, the BC Liberal MLA for Peace River South.
Even worse, you can trace the thefts back to houses where the stolen material often sits outside in plain view of incredulous victims. Only occasionally does the justice system grind into action enough that a person can recover their stolen property, said Bernier.
“It’s frustrating as hell when you watch this take place, and nothing happens,” he said.
Even when someone is charged, they are often released on conditions that include a monetary fine if they are breached. But those are rarely paid.
”I found locally just in Dawson Creek we are close to $4 million in unpaid fines from these criminals,” said Bernier.
Bernier said he’s sympathetic to under-resourced RCMP officers trying to do their job, and Crown prosecutors seeking to make convictions stick. But ultimately, it’s ordinary people that are getting hurt, and they are increasingly fed up at the lack of help.
“I’m worried about somebody getting hurt, because now what’s happened is some of these people have gone to these houses, banging on the door and saying give me my stuff back or else. Saying there’s my quad, I’m taking it and dare you to stop me,” said Bernier.
“They are saying, ‘The RCMP aren’t doing anything to get this back, there’s my sled, it’s a $20,000 sled, I’m going to get it back.’”
Crime threatens livelihoods
In one case, the local action group caught a person hotwiring a truck, photographed it, recorded a video confession and called the RCMP, said Dilworth.
“The RCMP came and they could not charge him with theft because they didn’t witness him driving it,” he said.
“I don’t believe Crown is doing their job,” added Dilworth.
For business owners, the continued crime, disruption and nuisance is adding up to money that threatens their livelihoods.
“I know one guy who has been hit for over $300,000 in damage over the past two years,” said Lardner. “He’s been hit 23 times. That will make you go crazy.”
At True North Fitness, the proximity to a nearby BC Housing shelter has led to homeless people sneaking into the gym, using drugs in the washroom, vomiting, making a mess and then refusing to leave, he said.
Robberies and break-ins
“We had another person come in, walk around the gym after hours, light a cigarette and just fall asleep on the turf in the gym,” he said. Our members, it freaks people out, because there are a lot of women and kids who train there.”
Earlier this week, one person in one night stole a safe that contained $3,000 from inside a Dawson Creek restaurant, broke into a co-op, stole several guitars from a guitar store, and then tried to pry open the rear door behind Lardner’s gym, which is shared with other businesses, he said.
That’s on top of two other robberies in Fort St. John, he said. This time, the person was caught by RCMP. Everyone is watching to see if he’ll actually get charged, said Lardner.
“If this was happening in Victoria — man, that would be national news,” he said.
Sharma urged time for her government’s reforms to make a difference. The government has promised more supportive housing services to address the issues of crime and other publicly disruptive activities that can accompany the operation of shelters in neighbourhoods.
Eby has pledged to show visible improvements in street disorder and crime within the first few months of his premiership.
“We want to make sure the justice system and RCMP have the tools they need to respond to these challenges,” said Sharma.
“I hope that will help the community see the impacts of (the changes), instead of feeling the need to do it themselves.”
Business owners like Lardner think that’s unlikely.
“We’re not just a bunch of guys, this group is compromised of 70-year-old ladies and middle-aged women, young people, old people, we’re just doing it because we’ve been affected in some way shape or form,” he said.
“We’re all business owners, property owners. We’re all law-abiding citizens who have had enough.
“I don’t do it because I like to do it,” he adds. “I do it because I have to. I do it to help protect this community. It’s an absolute crisis, because the criminals know they are not going to get in any trouble.”