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Suspect used puppy inquiry to case house, police allege

Jul 20, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

It may have been only small amounts of change a Riverton teen stole during several alleged burglaries in rural neighborhoods, but prosecutors say she took more than money.

"People want to be safe and feel safe in their homes. ... She took the sense of security," Fremont County deputy attorney Ember Oakley said in Riverton Circuit Court.

Oakley's statement was made during a preliminary hearing July 9 for Stephanie Janae Whitman, 19, who faces three burglary charges.

Oakley argued the $50,000 cash bond Circuit Court Judge Wesley Roberts set during Whitman's initial hearing June 29 needed to be continued.

"These are three serious felony charges, and the state has a strong case," Oakley said.

Despite public defender Kate McKay's request to lower the bond to $5,000 --noting her client's age, lack of criminal history and ties to the community -- Roberts set it at a $25,000 cash-only bond.

Roberts said his decision was based on hearing that Whitman might have committed other burglaries. He was also concerned for the community's safety and people feeling safe at home.

"I do think that's an appropriate amount, based on what I've heard," Roberts said during the hour-long hearing.

According to amended charging documents filed July 6, Whitman faces three separate counts of burglary, a felony that carries up to 10 years of prison and a $10,000 fine.

The crimes allegedly occurred between late April and June 8 and involved houses on Delfelder, Jennings and Haymaker roads.

Although the charges stem from three incidents in those specific areas, investigators believe Whitman burglarized several houses in rural Riverton based on her admission during interviews with police.

According to an affidavit filed by Riverton police Sgt. Charles Marshall, his agency and the Fremont County Sheriff's Office in recent months have been called to investigate "numerous" residential burglaries in Fremont County.

The exact amount of money Whitman allegedly stole during the burglaries is unknown. However, court documents state she admitted to taking at least $200 from one residence and change from the others.

Testimony

During the court proceedings, Riverton police Detective Sgt. Julie Mathews took the stand and detailed some of the investigation.

She said police got a break in the case after a man spotted a vehicle with a female driver in an area where burglaries were occurring and believed it to be suspicious.

Mathews said when the man approached the woman, she reportedly told him she was looking for a puppy. He contacted police and provided them with information about the driver and the vehicle, a black older extended-cab Ford pickup truck.

Police later saw the suspect truck parked in the 500 block of South Third East Street.

Mathews said officers noticed evidence inside the vehicle in plain view, including containers and change.

After Whitman was identified as a suspect, Mathews said she was taken to the police department for questioning. Mathews said Whitman admitted to entering houses and taking change and described some of the houses she went to.

When asked if she acted alone, Mathews said Whitman responded: "I don't commit crimes with friends, because that's how you get caught."

Fremont County Sheriff's Detective Eric Granlund also testified at the hearing. He told the court Whitman said she took responsibility for the burglaries and said she acted alone. He said during a drive with himself and Riverton police Capt. C.T. Smith, Whitman indicated what houses she went to.

"She identified over 20 homes that she either entered or attempted to break in," Granlund said.

Granlund said Whitman told police she would gain access to houses through an unlocked door, or in one case, a window screen she cut.

McKay questioned if police knew if there was a relationship between Whitman and any of the alleged victims and if it was known if Whitman had permission to enter the homes.

Granlund said he did not know.

Puppy tactic

Later in the hearing, he told the court that Whitman told police she had a plan when going to a house. He said she would knock on the door and if no one answered, she would check to see if it was unlocked. In the event someone came to the door, Granlund said Whitman would ask if they had seen her lost puppy.

In closing, Oakley said Whitman showed detectives where she committed the burglaries.

"She went to it, pointed to it, said 'yes, I entered that house,'" Oakley said.

McKay reiterated there was no testimony concerning if the homeowners knew Whitman.

Before the hearing wrapped up, Roberts said enough probable cause existed to bind over all three charges to Lander District Court. Whitman's next court appearance will be for an arraignment, which has not yet been set.

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