Justin T. Bennett, a 35-year-old Springs man who told police he had been addicted to heroin for two years, was indicted by a grand jury in Riverhead Tuesday on 27 counts of burglary in the second degree, stemming from a series of burglaries in East Hampton, Southampton, and Sag Harbor Village over the last year. He was arrested last Thursday, and was arraigned in East Hampton Justice Court last Friday, where he entered a plea of not guilty.
The arrest came 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. Detective Sgt. Lisa Costa of the Southampton Police Department reported the 10 burglaries in that town netted Mr. Bennett $20,000 in cash and an additional $40,000 in jewelry.
Tens of thousands of dollars in cash is long gone, apparently given to a heroin dealer in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where Mr. Bennett told police he had sold many pieces of jewelry. He also sold stolen items in two neighborhoods near the Long Island Expressway in Queens. It is not clear whether they were sold to pawn shops or to “fences” who deal knowingly in stolen merchandise.
The investigation spanned from Montauk to Manhattan. The series of burglaries Mr. Bennett is accused of run back to January, although he told police, in what Dan Cronin, assistant district attorney for Suffolk County, termed “the equivalent of a confession,” that he had been committing burglaries for almost two years.
“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 while driving his girlfriend’s 2003 black Toyota Corolla, a car he told police he used when he committed many of the burglaries. Some stolen jewelry was found in the car, police said. According to Detective Anderson, it will take time to return the 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 last Friday, obviously in distress while waiting to be arraigned, and then, again, after the proceedings. He was initially charged with 14 counts of burglary in the second degree, C felonies, along with two counts of attempted burglary, 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, 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 toward his knees.
Sheila Mullahy, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, who appears in the East Hampton courtroom on Thursdays to represent indigent defendants, had been summoned to court on Friday because of the serious nature of the charges. Justice Rana asked Mr. Bennett if he would 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.
Mr. Cronin asked Justice Rana to set bail at $160,000, $10,000 for each felony burglary charge. He also said 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 East Hampton.
“He is seeking drug treatment,” Ms. Mullahy said. She also noted that the accused man’s father was in the courtroom.
The justice set bail at $100,000 cash or a $200,000 bond, and 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 afterward, Ms. Mullahy explained to the senior Mr. Bennett what was going 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.
When questioned after being picked up by detectives, Mr. Bennett had 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 hidden keys, and was frequently successful. He found keys in various 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 there. When he confronted the intruder, Mr. Bennett reportedly told him, “I’m looking for my dog.” Mr. McNaughton also saw and described the Toyota.
A Clearwater Beach resident also called police after pulling into her driveway and seeing a man on the deck of her house on March 6. Laura Molinari provided a description and told police her hidden key was missing. Again, police say, Mr. Bennett said he was looking for his dog, and walked away. Ms. Molinari told police she immediately had her locks changed.
Mr. Bennett’s victims, if his statement to police is accurate, were a broad array of people, all with one thing in common: they were at work when the burglaries took place. His first target of the year, and the only one where he tried to force his way in, according to his statement, was a Sycamore Drive house in Springs, belonging to Laurie Wiltshire, a prominent land planner in town. He failed to gain access on that occasion.
Another victim, Chris Foran, a Gardiner Avenue, Springs, resident, had $1,950 she had raised to help fight cancer stolen on May 7.
Mr. Bennett told police that, when he entered a Montauk Boulevard house in Springs on May 28, he immediately saw it as “a Spanish share house.” He methodically went room to room, stealing what he could, including $3,500 that had been saved by Nestor Vargas.
Now that he is indicted, he will be rearraigned in county court, in the coming weeks.