Police: Burglars targeted homes left unattended after owners’ deaths

GREENFIELD — Two burglars caught breaking into a Hancock County home Wednesday are suspected of targeting area houses left unattended after homeowners’ deaths, police said.

An Indianapolis man and woman were arrested Wednesday night after they broke into two homes in rural Hancock County, police said. Both houses were vacant, their former owners having recently died; investigators suspect the pair has burglarized others in the central Indiana area, prompting conversations about how families can protect their loved ones’ homes after a death.

Shalagene Sparks, 40, and Christopher Ward, 36, were being held in Hancock County Jail at press time without bond. They face preliminary charges of burglary and residential entry as prosecutors review police reports, records show.

Ward told investigators Sparks has been prowling the area looking for estates to steal from, Rasche said. Ward stated he was a heroin addict and was helping Sparks because he needed money to buy drugs, said Hancock County Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Rasche, head of the department’s investigations unit

The two homes targeted Wednesday were located within a mile of each other in Greenfield; one home sat in the 700 block of North County Road 525W, and the other was located in the 1100 block of North County Road 400W, Rasche said.

911 calls reporting the burglaries came into the county’s dispatch center within minutes of each other Wednesday evening, police said.

Sparks and Ward were first spotted outside the home located on County Road 400W around 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, police said.

A family member told the Daily Reporter he was driving by the home and saw a strange pickup truck in the driveway. Knowing the home had been empty since his grandmother passed away, he called 911 and used his truck to block the suspects’ car in the driveway.

Hancock County sheriff’s deputies arrived minutes later and found Ward running through a nearby bean field, police said.

A K-9 officer chased Ward, biting the man several times to stop him from running, Rasche said. Ward was treated at a Hancock Regional Hospital before being taken to jail.

Sparks was found near the pickup parked in the driveway, Rasche said. She immediately denied being involved with the burglary, he said.

Many of the deceased homeowner’s belongings had already been removed from the home on County Road 400W, but several knick-knacks owned by the woman were found in the truck when police arrived, Rasche said.

As Hancock County sheriff’s deputies headed to the home on County Road 400W, dispatchers sent Indiana State Police officers to the property on County Road 525W, where a 911 caller reported tools and other items had been stolen.

Neighbors said the owner of the home died earlier this year, and relatives were working to remodel the property. A box containing fine silverware was taken, along with a shop-vacuum, tools and several ceiling fans and light fixtures that were waiting to be installed, records show.

Many of those same items were found in the pickup truck Sparks and Ward parked at the house on County Road 400W, Rasche said.

Police aren’t sure if the suspects broke into both homes Wednesday evening or if the property on County Road 525W had been targeted days before, but detectives are now working to connect Sparks and Ward to other estate burglaries reported in central Indiana.

The incidents highlight the need to be mindful of properties sometimes left unattended after a person has died, said Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s department’s chief deputy.

Often, criminals search obituaries or listings for upcoming estate sales to find homes to target, Burkhart said. They watch for funeral and visitation times so they can sweep in when they know relatives will be away, or they watch the property to see if visitors are dropping by sparingly, he said.

Remove all valuables from the home immediately after a loved one passes, Burkhart said. Seek the help of neighbors who can keep an eye on the property and report anything suspicious, he advised.

Adding extra lighting in and outside the property and setting the lights to timers helps to give the impression someone is living in the home, Burkhart said. Installing security cameras, even inexpensive ones that are traditionally used for hunting, will help deter would-be burglars, he said.

Stay safe

Burglars tend to target properties left unattended, especially after a homeowner has died, police said.Officials offer these tips for keeping a loved one’s property protected:- Empty all valuable property from a home after a loved one dies- Ask neighbors to keep an eye out and report anything suspicious- Drive by the home regularly- Install security cameras; even inexpensive trail cams will deter would-be burglars- Add extra lighting inside and outside the home- Move vehicles around the driveway if the relative left behind a carSource: Hancock County Sheriff’s Department
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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.