A former lawmaker tailed a suspected burglar. SLO police ‘read him the riot act’ | Opinion

Sam Blakeslee is fed up.

Over the past two years, the 67-year-old former state senator and assemblyman from San Luis Obispo has been the victim of four burglaries.

On two separate occasions, his electric bicycle was stolen from his home, though it was recovered both times.

Another time, he caught someone in the act of rifling through his car.

Case No. 4 occurred early Monday morning. This time, there was a break-in at Blakeslee & Blakeslee, his financial services office in downtown San Luis Obispo.

“I mean, at some point, you wake up and you’ve been robbed four times,” Blakeslee said. “You ask yourself, ‘Why am I still here? And how much worse can it get?’”

Those are strong words, especially coming from an upbeat problem-solver who has devoted much of his life to public service, most recently to improving homeless services.

Tracking a thief through an app

The burglary at Blakeslee’s business was detected by a security system that sent an alert to an office employee, who in turn texted Blakeslee at 5:37 a.m. Monday.

When he arrived at the office a short time later, the thief was gone, but Blakeslee found papers strewn everywhere and he noticed that several items were missing, including his Apple Watch and his iPad. He soon realized that he could track his iPad through an app on his cell phone, which could help police find a suspect.

The app first led him to Smart & Final. No iPad, but he discovered some papers and envelopes with Blakeslee & Blakeslee letterhead stuffed between a couple of water dispensers.

Next, he followed the tracker to the Court Street Plaza on Higuera Street. Nothing there.

Blakeslee was back home when he got another hit; this time his iPad was at the CVS pharmacy on Marsh Street, where he went next.

At that point, Blakeslee phoned the police.

While he was waiting for officers to arrive, he spotted a man pushing a shopping cart and then saw him reach into it and pull something out — an iPad.

Blakeslee didn’t confront the man — he says that was never his intention — but he did snap his photo so he’d be able to turn it over to police.

That’s when things got ugly.

“He turns around and sees me taking a picture of him ... and then he gets angry at me for taking a picture of him and he starts kind of charging me, gesticulating, yelling at me, saying, “I didn’t give you permission to take my photo.’”

The man tried to grab his phone out of his hand, but Blakeslee hung on to it.

The man then stormed off, and Blakeslee called 911 again with an update. When police officers arrived a short time later, they found the suspect, later identified as James Delles, 29. He was arrested on suspicion of burglary, theft and robbery.

Based on his encounter with the suspect — Delles’ shopping cart loaded with his possessions — Blakeslee believes he’s homeless. Police could not confirm that, though Delles did not list a home address.

According to court records, he has a record of relatively minor offenses, including alcohol violations, selling marijuana and violating probation.

Video footage from a security camera documented a break-in at Blakeslee & Blakeslee financial services in downtown San Luis Obispo on Jan. 30, 2023. Sam Blakeslee later used a tracking app on his phone to locate his stolen iPad.
Video footage from a security camera documented a break-in at Blakeslee & Blakeslee financial services in downtown San Luis Obispo on Jan. 30, 2023. Sam Blakeslee later used a tracking app on his phone to locate his stolen iPad.

They ‘read me the riot act’

It was a positive outcome — most of the stolen items were recovered — but police were understandably critical of Blakeslee’s decision to track down his property himself.

“The SLOPD kind of read me the riot act for getting so involved,” Blakeslee said. “I understand, but I mean, if we all sit back and do nothing ... this is going to continue.”

He added: “From my perspective, it’s like it’s a little bit of a feeling of personal injury and insult when someone robs you.”

From the perspective of the police, however, citizens can talk themselves into dangerous situations by utilizing “find me” technology to try to locate stolen property themselves.

“We absolutely do not recommend that someone go out and do this,” San Luis Obispo Police Capt. Fred Mickel said. “Are those pieces of property worth your life or serious bodily injury? We’d say no.”

Mickel says his department is “equipped and ready” to track down suspects.

Blakeslee is complimentary of the SLO Police Department but is not convinced they have the resources to pursue cases such as his.

“Crime is becoming so common that I don’t even think robbery necessarily even shows up on the hierarchy of things to roll on quickly,” he said.

Not so, according to SLOPD.

“We definitely do not ignore calls,” Capt. Mickel said, “and we take them as quickly as we can.”

Whether the department can immediately respond to each call and track suspects through an app, as Blakeslee did, depends on day-to-day staffing levels, he said.

As for property crimes being up, that, too, is a misconception.

According to department statistics, burglaries were down 47% in 2022 when compared to 2021, and thefts dropped 14%.

Time to leave?

Despite statistical proof that some crimes have decreased, the latest burglary has Blakeslee reevaluating his future.

“I’m disheartened and seriously questioning, should I stay in California?” he said. “I know that sounds like a dramatic statement coming from someone who loves this place, who represented this place, and whose family business has been here 50 years, but it is not the place I grew up in.”

Over the past year and a half, Blakeslee has been advocating for more accountability and better coordination of homeless services in San Luis Obispo County. He was motivated to get involved when he spotted a homeless woman defecating in Mission Plaza, in the heart of downtown.

He documented the incident on Facebook, generating a community discussion about how to address the increased visibility of desperate people living on the streets. That led to an analysis of homeless services, along with a list of recommendations for local government agencies.

As a result, a citizens oversight group was appointed by the county Board of Supervisors.

Yet now, the very conditions that moved Blakeslee to act in the first place are causing him to reevaluate whether to stick around.

“It’s the man-bites-dog kind of irony of working on the homeless problem and having it hit you,” he said.

Efforts to reduce homelessness

Sam Blakeslee’s frustration and burnout are understandable.

For too long, public agencies — San Luis Obispo County included — have talked about adding affordable housing and expanding homeless services, but have delivered little in the way of actual progress.

Instead, they’ve relied on churches, charities and compassionate individuals to do the heavy lifting of providing unhoused people with emergency shelter, free meals and basic necessities like clothing, tents and warm blankets.

That finally appears to be changing.

San Luis Obispo County, for example, has a five-year plan to reduce homelessness by building more housing, expanding mental health and addiction services and improving county-wide collaboration.

That’s promising.

Yet as we’ve seen repeatedly, planning is one thing. Doing is another.

Blakeslee is correct in calling for more accountability, but that should not be left to a handful of caring individuals, or to an oversight committee, or even to some public agency doling out money.

The frustration that he feels is a reality in California today. Sometimes it’s hard to know who to blame, but it is up to all of us to insist that our elected leaders do more than state the obvious about homelessness. We should be long past being shocked about the visible consequences of homelessness on our streets. There is nothing wrong with being frustrated but we can’t quit if we really care about our community.

So how about it, Sam?

Are you really going to quit on the community you’ve spent your life representing?