AUGUSTA — Authorities say home burglaries have skyrocketed to such a degree that the city averages nearly one each day.

That trend, plus an even bigger explosion in motor vehicle thefts, appears to be fueled by a growing and troubling increase in prescription drug abuse, according to city officials.

Mayor William Stokes, who is chief of the criminal division of the Office of the Maine Attorney General, said home burglaries have become an almost daily occurrence, but he said Augusta is hardly alone, as property crimes are on the rise statewide.

And Stokes is confident he knows why: prescription and other opiate drug abusers need money and they’ll get it any way possible.

Stokes said he has received many comments from worried residents about the rise in crime.

“It’s troubling to me,” Stokes said. “It’s not unique to Augusta; it’s statewide. In my experience a lot of these property crimes are fueled by the need to steal money and steal property and fence it, and turn that into cash to buy drugs.”

Police Chief Robert Gregoire said that, while tough economic times may be a factor, “in my opinion, and the opinion of many others, drug abuse has been the most significant issue in crime in Augusta.”

The most common crimes, he said, are thefts and burglaries. So far this year, Augusta Police have responded to 605 thefts, 399 motor vehicle burglaries and 248 burglaries of homes and businesses.

Home burglaries, motor vehicle burglaries, in particular, have jumped recently. Last year, city police recorded 212 motor vehicle burglaries. There have already been 399 this year.

It’s a trend residents can help fight, Gregoire told city councilors recently, after he was asked by Stokes to speak about the rise in property crimes and drug abuse.

He urged people to lock the doors of their homes and vehicles, not leave valuables in vehicles, keep an eye out for their neighborhoods and neighbors, and call police if something doesn’t look right.

“Watch out for your neighbors, and watch out for yourself,” Gregoire said. “If you see something suspicious, call us. We’ll come. If it feels suspicious, it probably is. If you see an unfamiliar vehicle at your neighbor’s, get a plate number, and a direction of travel. Don’t hesitate to call the police. We’d rather go up and find a couple of kids making out than find out, the next day, someone heard a noise but didn’t call, and we wind up with a motor vehicle or house burglary.”

He said many home burglaries occurr during the day on weekdays, when working homeowners aren’t around. On the other hand, most motor vehicle burglaries have happened at night.

Gregoire said property crimes usually decrease this time of year, but haven’t so far.

Chip Woodman, supervisor of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s Augusta-based South Central District Task Force, which covers Kennebec and Somerset counties, said opiate drug abuse has become rampant in Maine. The number of people seeking substance abuse counseling for opiates has surpassed, for the first time in Woodman’s memory, the number of people seeking counseling for alcohol abuse.

He said drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone are expensive and addicting — the average price of a prescription pill sold illicitly on the street is about $1 per milligram.

“So a 30-milligram pill is about $30,” Woodman said. “If you’ve got a person using eight, 10 or 12 of those a day, it gets very expensive — especially if the person is unemployed. They have to pay for that habit somehow. As you can see, one of the reasons there are property crimes in Maine is, I believe, we have a severe problem with prescription drug abuse.”

Woodman and Stokes said there are an unprecedented number of drug overdose deaths in the state — nearly 170 this year — and more and more pharmacy robberies.

“In the past we were dealing with marijuana, hashish, then cocaine… now we’re moving into a whole other area we haven’t seen before,” Stokes said. “The last decade has really seen the addition of prescription drugs and the whole process of diversion of those, from lawful use to unlawful use.

“It’s a very difficult problem to solve. We’re not going to prosecute our way out of this. We need education. We need treatment. These are unprecedented numbers.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

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