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Hamwatch Fights Crime With Its Eyes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frustrated by a string of smash-and-grab car burglaries at a local health club, and unable to devote full-time surveillance to the case, sheriff’s deputies did the next best thing. They called in Hamwatch.

For two consecutive nights the volunteers staked out the club’s parking lot, waiting and watching. Midway through the second night their vigilance paid off.

“They saw the suspect break into a car, grab something and drive to another part of the parking lot. That’s where we grabbed him,” said Deputy Allen Dooley, a reserve deputy at the Santa Clarita sheriff’s station whose job it is to oversee the Hamwatch team. “When I handcuffed him he said, ‘Let me save you a lot of time--I did it.’ ”

Since the team was established in 1986, Hamwatch has assisted in more than a few such arrests, plus busts of graffiti vandals, drug dealers and liquor store owners who sold alcohol to minors. Members of the group were selected for the volunteer posts because of their skills with amateur radio, Dooley said.

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“We use them for surveillance in areas where we’ve had crimes committed,” Dooley said. “They may be on top of buildings, they may be in cars, on bikes or hiding in the bushes . . . They are trained in communications and they are quite good at it.”

Hamwatch members participate in stakeouts and sting operations and check vacant homes while residents are on vacation. Usually working one or two assignments a month, the 25 or so men and women of the team are trained not to confront suspects. Instead, they radio their observations to deputies deployed nearby.

“Our edict is to be the eyes and ears, not to enforce the law,” said team member Del Andreini. Andreini, who flies private jets for a living, signed up for the team in 1991 after an attempted burglary at his home.

“That was a real heart-thumper,” he said. “It told me that even though the deputies got there fast, they can’t be everywhere at once.”

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For some, ham radios evoke images of eccentric devotees tucked away in garages turning knobs on sets as big as kitchen stoves, but Andreini said the latest technology has led to radios that are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand.

Hamwatch members use small, hand-held radios in the field, but most have larger, more powerful radios at home.

“Last night I talked to five different countries, from a small country in Africa to Helsinki,” Andreini said.

To thwart would-be criminals who monitor police scanners, the group selects a different one of the 10,000 available ham frequencies each night, making their communications almost impossible to follow.

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“It’s an activity that can be exciting but can also be quite boring at times. You can sit up all night and nothing happens,” Dooley said. “But when you get the guy who just did something, that’s a good feeling.”

Most Hamwatch team members also belong to the Los Angeles County Disaster Service, an arm of the Sheriff’s Department that helps link various county agencies in the event of an earthquake or other major disaster.

Helping people communicate in times of emergency is a role that ham operators throughout the country have taken on since the early days of radio. Hamwatch took that one step further.

“It gives us a real sense of community involvement. You know you are doing something,” said Andreini, who has devoted more than 2,100 hours to Hamwatch.

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“The most important part of the job is to be a good witness.”


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