Suspect charged in car break-in cases

Four cars were damaged or stolen on university lots in April

Thomas DeLapp

More stories from Thomas DeLapp

Swing and a Miss
May 10, 2023

Photo by Google Earth

Bollinger Fields; parking lot on left.

The Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Department has arrested a man associated with recent car break-ins on campus parking lots as well as around the Chippewa Valley.

According to the Leader-Telegram, “Essa G. Demello, 26, of Lake Jackson, is charged in Eau Claire County Court with a felony count of theft, three misdemeanor counts each of entry into a locked vehicle and criminal damage to property, two misdemeanor counts of theft and a misdemeanor count of carrying a concealed weapon.”

Demello has no affiliation with UW-Eau Claire, and is under investigation. 

Eau Claire Police Department and UW-Eau Claire Police noticed an uptick in car break-ins after spring break, campus police officer Lt. Chris Kirchman said.

“We’ve had four, two of those are just considered criminal damage,” he said. “They broke windows to get in the vehicle, but nothing was taken. One of our thefts had busted a window, and I think all they got was a one dollar bill. We had one case where they didn’t break a window, maybe it was unlocked, and some equipment from inside the vehicle was stolen.”

Three of these four incidents occurred in the Bollinger Fields lot, the other in the Oakridge lot. 

Campus police were able to obtain video of a person and their vehicle at one of the break-ins. Collaboration with other departments across the county led to Demello’s arrest. There has been no car-related theft or criminal damage since.

2022 saw a trend of catalytic converter theft across the Chippewa Valley. Kirchman said while UW-Eau Claire had 23 catalytic converters stolen from university lots, the city itself had hundreds of cases. This year, there have only been two catalytic converter thefts, Kirchman said, both in January.

“We have like two or three thousand parking stalls that are controlled by the university,” Kirchman said. “We’re spread out, it’s a lot of cars, and it makes sense that those could be a target. That’s why we patrol those areas.”

Part of the risk, Kirchman said, is how long students often leave their cars unattended. They might park it on campus and not go back for a week or two — maximizing the time a car remains vulnerable and making it harder for police to determine when the crime took place. 

Kirchman said that while criminal damage occurred in these specific cases, the majority of thefts are from unlocked vehicles. 

“They walk around, they look in the vehicles, see something of interest, and decide to go into that vehicle,” Kirchman said. “They’ll pull on doors, if they’re bold enough, they will break a window. But typically they won’t break a window unless they see something of interest.” 

Following a university email last week warning students to be mindful of their vehicles, Kirchman offered tips on keeping cars safe.

“Make sure your vehicle is secure,” Kirchman said. “If you have items in your vehicle, make sure they’re not in plain view. Lock them in the trunk, put them in a storage compartment, don’t leave duffel bags, don’t leave backpacks, purses, wallets, anything like that in the vehicle.”

Kirchman said that while it’s impossible to totally prevent crime and theft, keeping vehicles secure and being aware of campus spaces can make UW-Eau Claire a harder target, discouraging crime.

DeLapp can be reached at [email protected].