Libby Abreo is the epitome of the adorable grandma.
She’s 79 years old and tiny—4 feet 6 inches, when she stretches to her full height, and a slight 82 pounds—with a high, reedy voice and a smile that takes up most of her face.
But everything that makes her immediately lovable also makes her a victim.
On Monday, Dec. 28, a woman entered Abreo’s apartment at the publicly subsidized Luisa Senior Center and stole her social security money—all while Abreo was there.
“I heard a knock, a knock, a knock,” Abreo recalls. She’s sitting on the hospital bed that occupies most of her living room. Sunlight slants through the blinds, illuminating the fur of a plump calico cat dozing on the seat of Abreo’s blue wheelchair. The knock came from a woman claiming to be her neighbor’s daughter, Abreo says.
“When I opened the door, she just came in,” she says. “She had a bunch of bags, presents for other people. She said she wanted to give me half of a cake; I said, ‘I don’t want chocolate cake!’ And then she stood there and cut it and spilled it all over the floor, and she took the money that was there, in those envelopes.”
Abreo doesn’t usually keep her money—approximately $1,000, this time—in such plain view, especially since a similar burglary happened to her last July, but she says she had taken it out to pay bills. Despite a badly bruised arm and shoulder, she hurried over to her neighbor’s apartment as soon as the woman had left and called the police.
“It had happened before to her, and I said, ‘How can it happen again?’” Mercy Moreno, Abreo’s 81-year-old neighbor, says. “I don’t know why they picked her. I’m older than her, but she’s more delicate than I am.”
Moreno, who has lived in the Luisa complex for 19 years (Abreo’s been there for 30), says crime in the area has increased since she first moved here—as it has in general in Santa Fe.
Santa Fe County Undersheriff Robert Garcia says part of the problem is due to a lack of consequences for repeat offenders.
“In a lot of cases, they just continue doing what they did right before they got arrested,” Garcia says. “[This] revolving door has a lot to do with why we continue seeing increasing burglaries. I don’t see consequences in a lot of cases.”
Consequences are a moot point if no one gets caught. Abreo isn’t fit or fearsome enough to chase down an intruder; she doesn’t have a telephone; and the Luisa complex does not employ a security guard.
“Our crime rate is very, very low at our Luisa and Alta Vista sites,” Ed Romero, the executive director of the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority, says. Still, he admits there was “a rash of” this kind of “knock and talk” burglaries approximately 18 months ago.
“We constantly tell our residents, ‘Don’t let anybody you don’t know in your unit,’” Romero says. But Abreo’s unit doesn’t have a peephole—neither does Moreno’s—so the only way to identify someone is to open the door. Romero says SFCHA does not employ security guards, nor does it have call boxes or other security measures.
“Security guards would run $30,000 a year,” Romero says. “Unless you ran 24-hour security guards, it would be impossible to stop that kind of thieving. These people feed on trust; a security guard is not going to stop that process.”
Romero suggests that residents who, like Abreo, don’t have phones simply use their neighbors’ phones or walk the half block to the senior center if they’re in trouble. Granted, it’s not assisted living.
“We don’t have a crime problem,” Romero says. “The bottom line is, if you let a stranger in your unit, you’re going to have problems.”
When a police officer came after the latest burglary, Abreo says, “He didn’t say much. I told him, ‘Didn’t they have a trust fund for when things like this happen?’ Because I’m very badly hurt; I fell on the ice. And then they came and took my money that I had for the month!” Her voice trembles a little.
“He said he can’t recompense me; it’s just lost,” she says quietly. “I get upset, you know.”
Neither Garcia nor Santa Fe Police Chief Aric Wheeler say they’ve noticed a renewed trend of “knock and talk” burglaries.
“We have those types of things occur in the city periodically, and it’s not necessarily even within a nursing home environment,” Wheeler says. “Sometimes it’s just people who prey on the elderly.”