Authorities: Gangs, teens behind gun and phone thefts

Kent County
Shattered glass door to store partially open and kent county sheriff cruiser parked outside store

Aug. 20, 2019 photos show a shattered door at Barracks 616 in Cascade Township and a deputy responding to the incident.

CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — As authorities investigate the second break-in this summer at a Cascade Township gun store, they’re saying that a recent rash of gun and cellphone store thefts are related and that gangs are behind them.

Kent County deputies say an alarm alerted them to a break-in at Barracks 616 just before 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. When deputies arrived, they found a glass door smashed in a lobby area of the building at 5740 Foremost Drive, near Kraft Avenue and 28th Street SE.

shattered glass door to store
An Aug. 20, 2019 photo shows a shattered door at Barracks 616 in Cascade Township.

Investigators say the would-be thief tried to break through a locked interior door that prevented him from accessing any firearms. He left the building without stealing anything, deputies say. In a statement posted on Facebook, Barracks 616 confirmed no firearms or merchandise were stolen during the break-in and “all security measures in place were successful in thwarting the attempt.”

West Michigan is seeing a spike in gun and cellphone thefts. Though the Tuesday break-in is thought to be unrelated, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department says most of the incidents are connected. Investigators believe multiple groups of teenagers are working together to commit these crimes.

Investigators said working to determine if these groups of teens are involved with national gangs, but at this time there is no evidence to show the connection. Authorities believe these groups are locally based.

“That’s sort of the point we are at now,” said Sgt. Joel Roon with Kent County Sheriff’s Office. “Sort of identifying some of these off shoots and smaller groups and maybe the bigger groups that they identify with.”

Last month, thieves broke into Barracks 616 and stole 23 guns. Investigators say a stolen SUV used in that instance was the big break in the case. It exposed the gangs and the connection between the guns and the cellphone thefts.

Police are working to identify everyone involved and make arrests, but it’s difficult because so many people involved. Investigators believe up to three different gangs are working around West Michigan to commit the crimes.

“We could be looking at anywhere from a dozen to a couple dozen people involved,” Roon said.

The thieves rush in as a group, taking as many guns or cellphones as they can. So far, it’s working. In Kent County alone, hundreds have been stolen since 2017. Some of the guns have been recovered, but 119 are still on the street.

There are roughly the same number of stolen cellphones still missing, as well. Thieves have hit around 16 cellphone stores in Kent and Ottawa counties this month alone, grabbing handfuls of phones before getting away in stolen cars.

“To some degree, there has to be a demand. To what level that demand has reached sort of remains to be seen,” Roon said. “There is not a huge indication that this is larger than West Michigan.”

Investigators say the guns and cellphones are being sold for cash on the street. 

So far, five arrests have been made. Almost everyone involved is between 14 and 19 years old. 

PASTOR: ‘THEY’RE DOING IT FOR SURVIVAL DOLLARS’

Jerry Bishop, a community activist and pastor at LifeQuest Ministries in Grand Rapids, said the teens committing the crimes are being exploited.

“They’re hungry. They’re not doing this for economic gain, they’re doing it for survival dollars,” Bishop said. “To have an extra $100 or $200, that’s not a whole future, that’s enough to make up for what I don’t have right now.”

According to Bishop, the crimes won’t stop until the underlying issues the teens face are addressed. 

“This is a culture that if we do not reverse this trend, with actual values retraining, it will grow,” Bishop said. “This is a growing trend because we are not teaching enough values to the audience that’s being duped to the break-ins.”

The suspect in the Tuesday break-in at Barracks 616 was alone and was described as a white male wearing black shorts, black shoes and a black hooded sweatshirt. He was carrying a black bag.

Anyone with information about any of the crimes is asked to call the Kent County Sheriff’s Department at 616.632.6100 or Silent Observer at 616.774.2345.

Barracks 616 said it will “continue to work tirelessly” to give authorities any information they need to find those responsible.

—24 Hour News 8’s Jacqueline Francis contributed to this report.

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