Downtown Bellingham police sweep targets homeless committing crimes

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 21, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Bike cops swept downtown Bellingham in search of known troublemakers Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 20, in response to an apparent spike in crimes committed by the homeless.

For one of the first arrests of the afternoon, officers booked Zachary "Gonzo" Stilts, 22, a felon caught sitting outside a café on Railroad Avenue - the 12th time the cops had contacted him for the same infraction.

"This is the dumbest thing I think I've been arrested for," Stilts said.

Officers searched his backpack and found gloves, needles, tiny empty plastic bags (for drugs, police said), a key to a Honda (Stilts found the key in Whatcom Falls Park, he claimed), a can of black spray paint and a pry bar.

"What do you use this for?" asked Officer Jon Knutson, doing a double-take on the pry bar.

"I haven't used it for anything," Stilts insisted. "It's brand new."

This summer downtown businesses have reported hundreds of graffiti tags, transients defecating outside their front doors and "pretty much anything under the moon," said Officer Eric Osterkamp. He recently got called to calm down a homeless man screaming obscenities at children on a field trip to the fish hatchery in Maritime Heritage Park.

This year, neighborhood crime logs show Bellingham police responded to an average of 323 incidents per month in the Central Business District. Only twice in the preceding 24 months had the monthly total topped 300.

Police have been trying to figure out the reason for the increase in calls. Knutson directly asked one arrestee, Shea Rex Field, who'd been accused of trespassing in Maritime Heritage.

"Meth," Field said, moments after dumping most of a tall boy of Icehouse beer into the grass. "We want that out of the park in every way."

Eight officers worked on the emphasis patrol from 1 to 6 p.m.

Joshua Immanuel Young's jaw dropped when Knutson handcuffed him for sitting against an abandoned building on East Champion Street. Young pleaded for leniency: He's been going to school at Bellingham Technical College to become a welder, so he can move on from a checkered past of burglary and car theft.

"All I've been doing today is going down to the library and filling out job applications," Young said. "I only came back here because you can only do so many in a day."

Officers still took him to jail. Maybe this will be a wake-up call, police said, that gets him to hang out with a different crowd.

"Josh even came up to me the other day and said, 'Hey, can you make it look like I'm talking to you, like I'm a snitch? I need to stop coming down here,'" Knutson recalled. "But, well, there's probably an easy fix to that."

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Reach Caleb Hutton at 360-715-2276 or caleb.hutton@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Dispatcher Blog at bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamcrime.

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