Justin T. Bennett, a 35-year-old Springs man who told police he had been addicted to heroin for two years, was arraigned in East Hampton Town Justice Court last Thursday on charges of having burglarized 14 houses in East Hampton. He is a suspect in another 13 break-ins in Southampton Town and Sag Harbor Village over the course of many months. He entered a plea of not guilty.
He was arrested on Wednesday after a months-long investigation involving the New York City Police Department as well as those in East Hampton, Southampton, and Sag Harbor. The investigation zeroed in on Mr. Bennett, police said, based on descriptions of an alleged thief, as well a large amount of jewelry recovered by New York City detectives.
The value of stolen jewelry and cash from East Hampton alone is about $126,000, according to the police. Thousands of dollars in cash is long gone, given to a heroin dealer in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood where Mr. Bennett also sold many pieces of jewelry. He also sold stolen items in two neighborhoods in Queens, near the Long Island Expressway. It is not clear whether they were sold to pawn shops or to "fences," people who deal knowingly in stolen merchandise.
The investigation spanned from Montauk to Manhattan, with the New York force playing an active role in recovering at least some of the stolen items. The series of burglaries of which Mr. Bennett is accused run back to January.
"People don't realize the amount of manpower and hours that go into an investigation like this," Detective Lt. Chris Anderson of the East Hampton Police Department said. "Thirty different burglaries, 30 different crimes."
The arrest came after Mr. Bennett was pulled over by East Hampton Town detectives, who zeroed in while he was driving his girlfriend's 2003 black Toyota Carolla, a car he allegedly used when he committed many of the burglaries, according to the detective. Some of the stolen jewelry was found in the car, police said. According to Detective Anderson, it will take time to return the missing items that have been recovered to their rightful owners, as police and victims go through them, one by one.
Wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, blue jeans, and white socks with no shoes, Mr. Bennett hunched over on the defendant's bench, obviously in distress, while waiting to be arraigned on Thursday, and then, again, after the proceedings. He is charged with 14 counts of burglary in the second degree, C felonies, along with two counts of attempted burglary, also felonies, possession of a hypodermic needle, and possession of marijuana.
Seated in the courtroom, just feet away from his handcuffed son, was his father. The two spoke quietly before the arraignment began, at least as quietly as they could, separated by about six feet and monitored by an officer. The father shook his head, meaning no, many times. "Sick?" he asked his son, at one point. "Yep," was the response, as the defendant slumped forward, chest going down towards his knees.
Sheila Mullahy, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, who appears in the East Hampton courtroom on Thursdays to represent indigent defendants, stood to Mr. Bennett's right as he was arraigned. She had been summoned to court because of the serious nature of the charges. Justice Rana asked Mr. Bennett if he was going to hire an attorney or if he was going to request that Legal Aid represent him. "I can't really afford an attorney at this time," he answered.
Dan Cronin, assistant Suffolk Sounty district attorney, asked Justice Rana to set bail at $140,000 $10,000 for each of felony burglary charges. He also pointed out that the defendant had "made a statement to the police which amounted to a confession." Ms. Mullahy asked for much lower bail, pointing out that Mr. Bennett is a lifetime resident of the town.
"He is seeking drug treatment," Ms. Mullahy said. She also pointed out that the man's father was seated in the courtroom. The justice set bail at $100,000 cash or $200,000 bond. Mr. Bennett indicated he would not be able to post it.
"This is what I'm hoping is going to happen," the justice said. "I'm hoping this will start you on treatment. These are very, very serious charges here."
"I'm very sorry for what I've done," he said.
She cautioned Mr. Bennett not to say anything else to the court, except through Ms. Mullahy.
Arraignment over, an officer, preparing to take Mr. Bennett out of the courtroom, looked away as father and son embraced, both with tears in their eyes.
Outside the courtroom, Ms. Mullahy explained to the obviously distraught father what was about to happen. "Once we have arranged that, the judge will release him to treatment," she was overheard saying. "It is really going to help him," she said to the senior Mr. Bennett, who clearly was torn as to whether to try to raise the $100,000 cash or $200,000 bond needed to release his son.
When questioned after being picked up by detectives, Mr. Bennett described his method of operation. He told them he would case a neighborhood, always during the day, looking for a house that seemed unoccupied. He then would walk back and forth and try the doors and windows, he reportedly said. He also would search the property for so-called hide-a-keys, and was frequently successful. He found keys in various seemingly creative places, he said: under a plastic squirrel, hidden on a hook at the bottom of a railing, hidden under a two-by-four in a garage, and so on.
Descriptions of Mr. Bennett had been given police by two Springs residents. Craig McNaughton, who lives in the Maidstone Park area, said Mr. Bennett attempted to enter his house on March 6. Mr. McNaughton had told The Star at that time that a man walked into his house, not realizing he and his wife were home. When he confronted the intruder, Mr. Bennett reportedly told him, "I'm looking for my dog." Mr. McNaughton also described the Toyota.
Another time in early March, a Clearwater Beach resident called police after pulling into her driveway and seeing a man on the deck of her house. She also provided a description. Again, police say, Mr. Bennett said he was looking for his dog, and walked away.
Mr. Bennett is due back in court Wednesday. It is not clear if police plan on making any more arrests in connection with the series of burglaries. Detective Anderson said the investigation "is ongoing."