WTOC Investigates: Stolen guns connected to violent crime in Savannah

WTOC Investigates: Stolen guns connected to violent crime in Savannah

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The sounds of gunshots and neighbors ducking for cover. It’s a scene that’s played out over, and over, this year in Savannah neighborhoods.

In a recent string of shootings, police say the suspect used a stolen gun.

Almost every day, there is a gun reported stolen in the Savannah area. Most of those guns are taken from vehicles - many of them unlocked - making them an easy target.

Mistakes like that, police say, has a connection to the violence we’ve seen.

It’s hard to forget the moment everything changed in her once quiet neighborhood.

“3 o’clock in the afternoon, children playing on the streets, riding their tricycles. Cars randomly shot all over - terrifying. Terrifying,” Jamie said.

Jamie, who asked that we not show her face, had just left the house that day.

“And about five minutes later, 10 minutes later, I received a call from my daughter telling me she had actually looked out the window after she heard the shots in the street. And saw the gun in her face through the window as the car was driving by,” Jamie said.

A neighbor drew a sketch of the suspected shooter for police. A councilman provided audio recording of the gunshots.

“Those shots were shot up and down the block so anyone could be hurt,” Jamie said.

No one was injured in that terrifying incident. But 30 minutes later, in a shooting in another neighborhood, a woman was shot.

Savannah Police detectives have since said those two shootings and a third one within 36 hours are connected.

They arrested four people they say are responsible. And the gun used? Police say it was stolen.

“Stolen just adds a whole other element of scary. Because we don’t know how many are in circulation. Terrifying,” Jamie said.

The gun used in her neighborhood is one of about 400 guns reported stolen each year within Savannah and Chatham County. That’s according to police report records going back two years.

Within those reports, a trend that shows most of the guns stolen are taken from vehicles, most police say were left unlocked.

“When you continue to see the same level of gun owner irresponsibility. It’s just very disappointing,” Savannah Police Department Chief Roy Minter said.

Disappointing - this one captured on camera. Surveillance video released by Savannah Police shows a gun being stolen from an unlocked vehicle downtown. Notice the two men walking past parked cars.

You see one open the unlocked door, and he’s in.

The owner told police this handgun and lock box were taken from the trunk. That was last year.

This year, Chief Minter says reports of guns stolen from cars are up 33 percent.

WTOC Investigative Reporter Jessica Savage discusses her investigation into stolen guns and violent crime in Savannah.

WTOC Investigates' Jessica Savage discusses Savannah's Stolen Guns

WTOC asked about the connection between stolen guns and violent crime, and why Savannah Police doesn’t have data to show the connection.

Chief Minter was asked if stolen guns were likely used in later crimes.

“We believe so. One of the additional challenges we continue to face are the number of guns that are stolen that owners can’t identify for us. About 40 to 50 percent of the guns that we’ve recovered, we don’t have serial numbers from individuals who have reported them stolen, so we don’t know who those guns legally belonged to before they showed up at a crime scene,” Chief Minter said.

It’s not a problem just in Savannah. In the suburbs of Chatham County, police also are trying to get the word out about stolen guns, posting signs.

“It’ll remind residents to lock their doors and to remove their firearms from their vehicles.”

Officer Esquina White with Chatham County Police Department says neighborhoods like Lions Gate in Georgetown are trending higher for reports of entering autos and stolen guns.

“They say that they usually leave their doors unlocked and nothing ever happens. Or they forgot to lock their doors that one night,” White said.

Those reasons, she said, have made certain neighborhoods a target.

Take a look at this map of Chatham County, each neighborhood highlighted has had more than 10 guns stolen since October 2018.

“When the guns get in the wrong hands, we have a matter of more violent crimes.”

A connection that Jamie has felt personally, and the fear of another shooting has stayed with her.

“It’s hard to sleep. It’s hard to kind of exist right now. No bicycle rides right now. We’re kind of on lockdown,” Jamie said.

Jamie was asked if she planned to stay in her neighborhood.

“Most likely not,” she responded.

Here’s what you can do to help. Police ask that you not leave a weapon in your car unattended.

And if your gun is stolen or goes missing, police ask that you to file a police report and be ready to share identifying information about your gun.

“Make, model, serial number - you can even take a photo of the weapon and keep it somewhere so in the event something happens - you’re able to access that information and you’re able to report it to us.”

And there’s a secure website you can use called Report It.

This is not just for guns, but any item you have of value. Or the ones you might get for Christmas, such as a new TV, phone or jewelry.

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