Edgartown police arrest suspect in Island home pill thefts
Photo courtesy of Dukes County Sherrif
Edgartown police last week arrested Joann Hathaway, 53, of Edgartown in connection with an investigation into the daytime thefts of prescription narcotics from numerous Edgartown homes.
Ms. Hathaway's November 30 arrest came after police questioned her about a confrontation with a teenager that same day, in the young man's home on Weeks Lane in Edgartown. He said he found a woman he identified to police as Ms. Hathaway rifling through the medicine cabinets of his house.
Ms. Hathaway, a house cleaner who lives at 15 Twenty-First Street North, admitted she went into at least six homes in Edgartown and several others in West Tisbury over the past several months, police said. Tisbury police plan to issue a summons to Ms. Hathaway in connection with a housebreak in Tisbury with similar characteristics.
Following the Wednesday arrest, and as the investigation expanded, West Tisbury police took the unusual move Saturday of using the Code Red system to alert residents of specific neighborhoods who might have fallen victim to the thefts and been unaware that needed prescription medicine was missing.
Edgartown Police said last week's incident was the third report they received about a homeowner finding a woman with a similar description searching medicine cabinets and drawers. In each case she gave similar excuses. When confronted, she said she was looking at possible rental properties, or was supposed to meet a homeowner, but had the wrong address.
Police say she would knock on the door of a home during the daytime hours. If no one answered, she would enter and search for prescription narcotics. In each case, police say, when she found pills, she stole them, as many as 30 at a time.
"The only thing she took were prescription pills, no property," Officer Mike Snowden said.
The break-ins began in July and continued through the summer and fall. In a concerted effort to solve the case, Officer Snowden was reassigned from his regular patrol duty to the Edgartown police detective unit led by Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby to help investigate the unusual number of house breaks.
"She described the locations and said she went into the houses through unlocked doors, searched for pills, and then left," Det. Sgt Dolby wrote in his police report. "She did this during the daytime when she had time to waste between cleaning jobs that she was doing. She said that she enjoyed the 'thrill' it gave her to go into someone else's house like that and not get caught."
Ms. Hathaway faced 10 charges relating to break-ins at six Edgartown homes when she was arraigned in Edgartown District Court on December 1. She was charged with six separate counts of breaking and entering in the daytime to commit a felony, two counts of larceny from a dwelling, and two counts of larceny under $250.
Ms. Hathaway was released on personal recognizance bail.
The homes in question are on Robinson Road, Windsor Drive, Ninth Street North, Fifth Street North, Weeks Lane, and Twentieth Street South. Police were actively investigating the incidents on Robinson Road, and Twentieth Street South, but were unaware of break-ins at the other four homes, until they questioned Ms. Hathaway.
Edgartown police were already focusing on Ms. Hathaway as a suspect in several housebreaks. They questioned her in July following an incident in which a homeowner on Twentieth Street South reported confronting a woman who was on her porch when the homeowner returned from work. The homeowner said she was familiar with Ms. Hathaway. At the time, Ms. Hathaway vehemently denied entering the home, according to the police report. She said she was checking out prospective rental property for a friend.
"A few days later I again spoke with Hathaway," Det. Sgt. Dolby wrote in his report. "She provided some more information about the rental house story. I checked into that information and it was not quite accurate, which I brought to her attention, and she continued to deny having been in the home."
In September, Edgartown police were alerted to a similar incident on Stoney Hill Road in Tisbury. That homeowner described a black SUV, and provided a description that was close to Ms. Hathaway, according to the police report. When the homeowner viewed a photo array, she was not able to make a definite identification, but did choose Ms. Hathaway's picture as a possibility, according to police.
Police got the break that helped solve the case on November 30, when they were called to the home on Weeks Lane. A teenager who was on the second floor of the home told police he heard a knock on the door.
"He looked out the window and saw the black SUV, which he didn't recognize, so he did not go down to answer the door," according to the police report. "The door then opened and he heard the woman call out 'hello.' He said he did not answer her because he was getting dressed."
The teenager told police the woman went through the downstairs cabinets, then came upstairs, went into a bathroom, and began looking into medicine cabinets. It was at that point that the teenager confronted the intruder.
"She told him she was his mom's friend and she was looking for tissues," according to the report. "She then quickly left the house, got into the black SUV, and left the area."
The teenager later identified a photograph of Ms. Hathaway from a photo array, according to police.
Questions and answers
Ms. Hathaway came to the Edgartown police station Wednesday for questioning voluntarily. Det. Sgt. Dolby told her that a resident provide a description that was very similar to her, and identified her in a photo.
"I then asked if she had been in a house on Weeks Lane," Det. Sgt. Dolby wrote in his report. "She then admitted that she had gone into the house. I asked her to explain. She said that she heard that someone around that area had recently had surgery so she went into the house to look for pills."
After further questioning, according to the report, she confessed to entering a number of homes, and stole prescription narcotics from two of them.
At that point police placed Ms. Hathaway under arrest, and advised her she would be taken to the Dukes County Jail for booking after police drove her through several Edgartown neighborhoods. According to the report, she identified the homes she broke into hoping to find pills.
West Tisbury issues Code Red
West Tisbury police later questioned Ms. Hathaway about housebreaks in that town. Police Chief Dan Rossi said she identified an area along Old County Road, from Great Plains Road to Hopps Farm Road, a thickly settled neighborhood of about 375 houses.
Police had not received any reports of break-ins in that area.
"She couldn't come up with an exact number, but she had an area," Chief Rossi said. "The individual would only go into the homes if there was not a car outside, and she would do it in broad daylight. She would go in and look specifically for medication. She just chose that area because she knew there were a lot of homes, and she could get in and out quickly."
West Tisbury police alerted residents in neighborhoods off Old County Road using the town's Code Red automated phone messaging system, by broadcasting a non-emergency message.
"This individual would enter homes that were unlocked and was only looking for prescription medication," the message said. "This department is asking you to check and see if any of your medication is missing."
The message was targeted only to residents of that area. Since it was broadcast, Chief Rossi said two residents of the area have reported missing prescription medications.
"We needed to get the message out right away," Chief Rossi said. "If they (residents) have a specific medication, and it's missing, we could have a medical emergency. If some pills were mixed up, and then an individual went to take the medication, again we would have a medical emergency."
Though wary of recent controversy over using Code Red messages for non-emergencies, Chief Rossi said he felt a specifically targeted non-emergency message was warranted in this case, as the most efficient way to get information to a specific group of residents.'
"It's a public safety issue," Chief Rossi said. "You just never know. This was the most efficient way to get the information out, If you think about how many homes, how long it would have taken an officer to go door to door."
Chief Rossi offered high praise for the work of Det. Sgt. Dolby and Officer Snowden in solving the case.
"They did a fabulous job, they should be recognized for that," Chief Rossi said.