Six teens arrested in burglaries, vandalism

CHESTER -- Chester County authorities have arrested six of seven local teenagers they say are linked to at least a dozen crimes, including recent vandalism at Chester Middle School.

The arrests were announced at a Monday afternoon news conference at the Chester County Sheriff's Office. Most of the cases, some of which date back to November, involve burglaries or larcenies. Sometimes, items -- including cars -- were stolen. In other cases, businesses were just ransacked.

Two 17-year-olds, Robert James Hart and Justin Lee Robbins, were each charged with first-degree burglary, according to booking reports.

Hart of 450 Pryor St. also was charged with second-degree burglary and grand larceny. Robbins of 2642 Blue Moon Drive also was charged with safecracking and malicious injury to personal property. Each teen had bonds of more than $200,000, and Hart was denied bond on some of his charges.

The Herald typically does not name juveniles charged in a crime. In these cases, the youngest person charged is 14, two are 15 and one is 16. Authorities have not released the name of an 18-year-old wanted in connection with the crimes because he has not been arrested.

Two of the teens were being held at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice in Columbia. Two had been released to their families, including one who was fitted with an ankle bracelet so authorities can electronically monitor his whereabouts.

Sheriff Robby Benson said the total cost of the damage is likely close to $200,000 or $300,000.

The damage to Chester Middle School was $48,000, said Gaither Bumgardner, the school district's director of general services who also spoke at the news conference. Of that cost, he said $38,000 represents the expense of replacing carpets.

When the school was vandalized on the night of April 24, a sprinkler was left running and drains were blocked, causing flooding. In the main office, drawers were pulled from desks and flipped over, leaving papers strewn across the floor.

Classes were canceled the next day so custodians could clean up.

School officials had said surveillance tapes showed two people -- who they said had been identified as students at the school -- walking through the hallway.

However, on Monday authorities said only one of those accused was a student at the school. The 14-year-old had been suspended from school at the time of the break-in, Benson said.

Authorities said a major break in the case came at the end of May, which led to the first arrest in the case on the night of May 30.

They would not specify what discovery broke the case, but after the news conference, Maj. James McNeil said that through interviews with the teens investigators were able to establish a link between the teens and their connections to various incidents.

Authorities said the teens generally targeted places along or near the J.A. Cochran Bypass. As for a motive, Benson said the teens were apparently just looking for something to do, noting that they would steal snack food and eat it or swipe a car for joyriding.

Some teens were involved in crimes that others weren't part of, but all the teens knew of their peers' actions, Benson said.

"It's been a big relief," Benson said of the arrests. "It's been frustrating, not for just us, but for businesses around the county."

Some businesses were broken into several times, including Chad's Towing on Wilson Street and J&M Automotive on Columbia Road.

"They put a hurting on me," said John Melton, owner of J&M. He said his business was hit twice, and both times, the burglars would grab a handful of keys and try to find cars in the parking lot that matched them.

If a key didn't fit, the teens would toss it. Thus, Melton has had to pay to replace some keys as well as put new ignition switches in some of the vehicles. And when authorities retrieved the cars, they'd been damaged.

"It's just expensive and aggravating," he said. "I hope they get more than just a slap on the wrist."

In the four or five years he's been in business at that location, Melton said he'd never had any problems like this.

Terry Roof, who works at Chad's, said that business also hadn't seen any problems before the burglaries.

"It's a huge relief," he said of the arrests. "I was raised up, 'You don't mess with stuff that don't belong to you.'"