Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006 | 7:25 a.m.
For six years Pam and Don Lewellen felt safe living in posh Rhodes Ranch in Southwest Las Vegas. They had a guarded front gate, security cameras and roving patrols to protect the $400,000-to-$1 million homes in the rolling, tree-lined golf course community.
That changed Saturday, when the couple returned home after spending almost a month in Kansas City, Mo., where Don, 53, runs a commercial drywall business.
Someone had kicked in the front door and taken $37,000 worth of goods, including Pam's 2002 red Ford Thunderbird convertible, which was parked in the garage.
It turns out the Lewellens are not alone. Since Aug. 1, 13 other burglaries have occurred within a one-mile radius of their home, Metro Police say.
And while gates, guards, cameras and patrols are excellent selling points, experts say, they do not always keep the bad guys out and can provide little more than a false sense of security.
Metro investigated 14,224 burglaries in 2005, a slight increase over the previous year. In 2004, burglaries also increased over the previous year, while the number of violent crimes, such as murder, aggravated assault and rape, decreased both years.
Gated communities on the whole have proved to be not as effective as many residents may believe in keeping out criminals, FBI spokeswoman Natalie Collins says:
"Gate codes are given out to pizza delivery people and others. They (gates) are a false sense of security."
William Sousa, a professor in UNLV's department of criminal justice, says it is not unusual to see a cluster of burglaries such as those at Rhodes Ranch, a 2,300-home community off South Durango Drive and Warm Springs Road.
Once burglars become active in an area, they grow comfortable, he says. Within a gated community, thieves learn what security measures are in place - or the lack of them - and they watch routine activities of residents.
And just because you've been hit once does not make you immune from more burglaries, Sousa says. A second burglary is likely within weeks after the first, especially after an insurance company pays to replace the stolen items.
Sousa also says that gated communities are not always safer.
"Sometimes gated communities keep crime in, rather than keep it out," he says.
Bill Marion, a spokesman for Rhodes Homes and the Rhodes homeowners association, echoes a similar sentiment: "Some burglaries in a community are committed by the kids who live there."
Rhodes officials say burglaries occur in every development and that the security measures they offer are meant only as support to personal home alarm systems, which the Lewellens did not have despite being away from their home for weeks at a time.
But when the Lewellens left home for extended periods of time, they say, they always notified the subdivision's security guards.
"Our security measures deter crime but they are not foolproof - no system is," Marion says.
"The security measures provided by a homeowners association should never be a substitute for individual home security systems, but rather should augment them. Guarded gates help lessen occurrences, but professional burglars can find their way around them."
The Lewellens believe there were other contributing factors.
They say that they have been told by a guard that the security camera at the front gate was not working during the time of their burglary.
And that gate was not the only way in and out of the development. In the back of the complex is a temporary gate on Tall Ruff Way that construction trucks pass through daily.
Rhodes' Marion says a manned guard house is at the open construction gate, and that the contractors' entrance will be closed when all building in the community is finished.
Marion says he could not comment on what systems, including the cameras, were or were not working on a particular day. But, he says, all machinery breaks down at some time, which is even more reason not to depend solely on any one method for protection.
The public safety committee of the Rhodes Ranch homeowners association has contacted Metro Police to start Neighborhood Watch programs in the community, he says, with the first meeting set for Sept. 14.
"With Neighborhood Watch you get to know your neighbors and everyone looks out for each other," Marion says. "It is yet another mechanism in place for security."
Don Lewellen is not happy with what he says is the lack of communication from the home- owners association: "I think that with so many burglaries occurring in one area in such a small span of time, the home-owners association should have sent out a letter to warn us of the heightened potential of burglary."
And Pam Lewellen, 55, says she has a better appreciation for what other burglary victims feel.
"When someone tells you their house was broken into, you tell them that you feel bad for them, but until it happens to you, you do not know how angry, how violated and how hurt you can feel," she says. "We'll replace everything eventually, but for the rest of my life I will not get over this."
The next order of business, the couple says, is to install an alarm system.