In tiny Ojai, where drug offenses and related thefts are the biggest worries of police, crime jumped nearly 36% last year, mostly because of a large increase in minor thefts.
Reported serious crime surged from 177 in 2001 to 240 last year as small-time thieves stole 123 times, instead of 84 the previous year, according to the Sheriff's Department, which acts as Ojai's police agency.
Although serious violence remained low and nearly stable, most of that 63-crime increase came from 39 more petty thefts. Home burglaries and auto burglaries also increased by 10 offenses each.
"Theft goes hand in hand with our increase in substance abuse," said Sheriff's Capt. Gary Pentis, who serves as Ojai's police chief.
"When I go back through the records, there's an obvious link. Theft supports drug habits, especially auto burglaries and petty thefts."
Drug abuse has been on the rise in the Ojai Valley in the last two years, Pentis said. The fatal drug overdoses of two 18-year-olds and a young adult last year brought the issue home, prompting a united response.
"We all are pulling together on this," Pentis said. "We're using common resources to attack the problem on different levels -- in the schools, with parents, with social service groups and law enforcement."
After the two overdose deaths last fall, Pentis said his office received numerous tips about illegal drug sales, especially prescription OxyContin and methamphetamines.
"We've been struggling with our opiate derivative use among our young," Pentis said. "And we've been fighting a methamphetamine problem up here for some time. That's also responsible for some of our thefts."
A disturbing part of the methamphetamine problem is that use does not seem to drop off with age, as in the past.
"Our arrest rate for [ages] 35 to 45 is just as high as for 25 to 35," Pentis said.
Narcotics arrests increased from 90 to 106 last year in Ojai, and non-driving alcohol violations jumped from 38 to 63.
"We're hoping that the community coming together in a coalition will help fight this," Pentis said. "This is the first formal coalition to fight substance abuse in the Valley. We've had two meetings so far."
Meanwhile, the city's most serious crimes -- felony violence -- rose from 19 offenses to 22 last year, as robberies increased from three to four and felony assaults from 14 to 16. The city had no slayings but two rapes.
"The numbers are still low, and a couple of them were transient-on-transient robberies," Pentis said. "Some of our assaults have been gang-related. We have two different gangs that have been at odds, and some of their issues are race-based."
One is a skinhead gang and the other Latino, he said.
Another troubling trend also emerged in Ojai. So-called identity thieves stole residents' mail and used their names, checking accounts and credit cards, resulting in an increase in fraud from 14 incidents to 28.
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Ojai crime is down from a peak of 44.5 offenses per 1,000 residents 12 years ago to 30.3 in 2002.
*--* Fel- ony Homi- Rob- ass- Burg- Auto Total Year cide Rape bery ault lary Theft theft Arson crimes 1991 1 3 6 12 79 208 30 6 345 1999 0 3 1 21 45 150 2 4 226 2000 0 0 1 15 28 151 5 0 200 2001 0 2 3 14 35 116 6 1 177 2002 0 2 4 16 39 171 5 3 240
Source: Ventura County Sheriff's Department