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Added stress: Lava evacuees struggle with thieves, trespassers

Published: Jun. 19, 2018 at 5:13 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 21, 2018 at 11:59 AM HST
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Neighbors found Jennifer's home with muddy footprints tracked through it. (Image: Heath Dalton)
Neighbors found Jennifer's home with muddy footprints tracked through it. (Image: Heath Dalton)
Intruders broke into Jennifer's Leilani Estates home through the window. (Image: Heath Dalton)
Intruders broke into Jennifer's Leilani Estates home through the window. (Image: Heath Dalton)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - There have been more than a dozen reported property-related crimes in the lower Puna area since evacuees have been forced to leave their homes in early May.

Jennifer, who wished to use only her first name, was informed that her Leilani Estates home had a smashed window.

Neighbors told her that muddy footprints tracked the house, beds were slept in and beer bottles were littered throughout.

She said intruders were likely having a party and watching fissure no. 8 from her home.

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"(I'm) just feeling sadness that people took advantage of the situation, and knowing you're not the only one," Jennifer said.

Jennifer's home still stands, but she says most of the homes around here are gone. Every day, she worries whether or not she'll be the lava's next victim.

Her neighbor, Heath Dalton, was one of the men who came into to assess her home. He lost his on May 5.

"I want to help out," he said. "It's still a tight-knit community."

Now, Dalton helps by visiting Leilani estates several times a day to check in on his neighbors' property. He's escorted in by Civil Defense.

He said that he's seen four homes that were either broken into or damaged.

"Everybody is extremely frustrated," he said.

The Hawaii County Police Department has received 14 reported instances of burglary, theft or criminal property damage in May. Only one other burglary case was received in June as of Tuesday.

"Looking at the previous data that's occurred, those numbers are pretty low for an area like that," said Major Samuel Jelsma, the Puna District Commander.

Four of the cases in May are believed to be traced back to one intruder, Alexandru Stingu-Dragomir.

A 66-year-old resident of Leilani Estates evacuated his home and later returned to find 29-year-old Stingu-Dragomir inside.

Police announced Thursday a Leilani Estates homeowner found an unknown woman on her property. It seemed that she had unlawfully taken up residence in the unfinished house and had been there more than once.

Police later found and arrested the woman, identified as 36-year-old Jami Leonard.

To get into the Leilani Estates area, people have to go through two checkpoints manned by Hawaii County police and National Guard members.

Jelsma believes that the checkpoints have been effective in stopping property-damage related crimes. He says that in order to avoid checkpoints, one would have to already be with someone authorized to enter or make a pretty lengthy hike to the properties.

He said there were times police were not able to check on some of the reported damage and break ins due to safety concerns. Other instances, a report was filed and the lava swept the property away before officers could have a look.

"On a typical case, if it wasn't a lava-evacuated area, we would go dust for fingerprints, take photographs," Jelsma said. "If it's not safe for us to go, we can't."

While police consider the number of reported crimes to be low, Jennifer and other Leilani Estates residents remain frustrated.

"We want to be able to go home, to a home," Jennifer said. "We understand the curiosity, but we want people to respect the properties we have left."

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