The Cazzell family stayed in a hotel for a few days last month while their northeast Bakersfield home was tented and fumigated. They checked in on a Friday, and mom Julie Cazzell drove by to check on it the following Sunday.
What she saw shocked her.
“Somebody had slit the tent, and our front door was wide open,” she said.
When police arrived, they told her something she hadn’t known. Burglars target homes covered by pest control fumigation tents because they know nobody’s home.
Some wear special masks allowing them to move about safely, or wait until poison gas has dissipated enough that it’s safe to go inside. Others take their chances, with sometimes deadly results.
Last year, a man was found dead on the back porch of a tented Westminster home that was being fumigated in Orange County. Authorities said the man had no connection to the homeowners or the pest control company treating the house.
It’s hard to say precisely how many tented homes have been burglarized locally because the presence of a fumigation tent isn’t noted on police reports, but the Bakersfield Police Department said tented homes are at high risk for burglary.
“It’s been going on for a couple of years,” said BPD’s Sgt. Joe Grubbs. “If you’re getting your house fumigated, my advice would be to camp outside your house and guard it, or at least make sure the alarm is on if you have an alarm system.”
The Kern County coroner’s office said it wasn’t aware of any tent burglary-related deaths here.
“They seem to be familiar with the process and know when they can go inside, or they just mask up,” police spokesman Grubbs said.
Attempts to interview the pest control industry about the trend were unsuccessful. Calls to Clark, Terminex and Orkin were not returned.
Pumping fumigants into homes is a popular treatment for bed bugs, termites and other pests that are hard to fully reach with hand-sprayed pesticides. The houses are tented to keep fumigants from escaping, and they’re extremely conspicuous.
Homeowners must leave for a few days during the treatment because breathing the air inside the home is potentially lethal.
After Julie Cazzell, 54, discovered her home had been broken into, she immediately called her husband, who walked around inside to take stock of what was missing. All together, it was about $20,000 worth of electronics, video games, jewelry and other valuables.
Most of it was insured, but some things can’t be replaced.
“It’s not so much the material things,” said Michael Cazzell, 50. “It’s the family pictures, wedding rings, my son’s coin collection from his grandpa.”
As near as the Cazzells can tell, the burglar or burglars entered through a rear window and then unlocked the front doors from inside.
The home was vandalized in the process of being ransacked. A wall was damaged when someone tried unsuccessfully to steal a wall-mounted television set. The door to a large microwave was broken when someone tried in vain to rip out the microwave.
Julie Cazzell said the contract the couple signed prior to obtaining service from Clark Pest Control suggested removing valuables from the home prior to treatment, but at the time she didn’t understand that to be a warning.
“I really wish someone had told us straight out that this was a problem, because we would have taken precautions,” she said.
Julie Cazzell spent the night in her car on the final night of last month’s tenting. Some teenagers approached the house about 3:30 a.m., she said, and she flashed her headlights at them. They turned around and left.
The Cazzells want pest control customers to know they are vulnerable.
“We feel violated, and it’s kind of embarrassing to talk about this, but if we can stop this from happening to one more family, that’s the most important thing,” Michael Cazzell said.