NEWTON - Members of the Asian American community remained on edge Wednesday as investigators worked to determine whether a string of five house break-ins over the past month targeted residents of Asian descent.
While no one was hurt during any of the daytime break-ins, which occurred on weekends while residents were away, the crimes have left many deeply concerned that there is a racial motivation behind the thefts.
“It makes me feel unsafe. In the 40-plus years I’ve lived in Newton, I’ve never felt so targeted,” said Mona SooHoo Wong. “This guy has been running around, breaking into homes, and does so during the daylight -- he has no problems getting in.”
Local leaders, including Newton Police Chief John F. Carmichael Jr. and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, will attend a community meeting Thursday at 8 p.m. to address residents’ concerns. Officials have said they don’t want to cause unnecessary alarm.
But some residents believe the city and police must do more to keep the public informed, including Scott Chin, whose Dedham Street home was broken into on June 19.
“At this point, I think it’s safe to say it’s definitely targeting Asians,” Chin said. “Things are going a little bit slow in getting the word out.”
The break-ins, which began June 13 in the area of the 900 block of Walnut Street, also included Helene Road on June 20; and the area of the 700 block of Quinobequin Road on June 27. Police have said the most recent break-in was Sunday on Country Club Road.
On Wednesday, Carmichael told reporters at Newton Police headquarters that investigators have not found any further connections between the families, other than their race and that they were away from their homes for short, weekend trips.
“The commonalities [are] that these are Asian families, but there’s nothing to indicate that there is any hate crime associated at this time. We will obviously look into that further,” Carmichael said.
Ryan said her office’s anti-bias task force is working on the investigation. “We are always looking at any crimes that are happening, particularly when you see a pattern like this, with a racial equity lens,” Ryan said.
The thefts also come amid a nationwide plague of anti-Asian hate and violence. Bigotry toward people of Asian descent is on the rise, and Asian Americans have reported more incidents of harassment and racism than in the past. In March, victims of a deadly mass shooting in Atlanta included several women of Asian descent.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller recognized the national increase in anti-Asian sentiments. “Our Asian community and the AAPI community has been reeling in the last 18 months,” Fuller said.
Newton has been the scene of 45 residential break-ins so far this year, including two previous series of house breaks in March and April. Three men were arrested as part of the investigations into those break-ins, and there was no indication that anyone was specifically targeted, according to police.
There were 19 break-ins at this point in 2020, according to Carmichael, and 35 break-ins by this time in 2019.
The most recent thefts in Newton all involved forced entry into the homes, and focused on jewelry, cash, and handbags, according to police.
Investigators are also asking for the public’s help to identify a person photographed in video surveillance at the time of the break-ins on Dedham Street and Helene Road. In the photos, the person wore a black hat and light-colored mask.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Newton Police Department Detective Bureau at 617-796-2104 or use the anonymous tips line at 617-796-2121.
Greer Tan Swiston, the chairwoman of the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association and a former Newton alderwoman, said community groups in the Boston area had discussed how they haven’t experienced the kind of Asian-targeted crimes reported elsewhere in the country.
These recent break-ins may change that perception.
“We have been feeling proud that our neighbors and our community wasn’t like that,” Swiston said. “So I feel like having this happen makes us feel [as though] we’re aren’t in as friendly a community as we thought.”
Anping Shen, the founding president of the Chinese American Association of Newton and a member of the city’s School Committee, praised the response to the recent break-ins by the mayor and police.
Shen said he hopes the city will mobilize resources to enhance the security of local homes, including those of Asian American residents. “I hope this is a wake-up call for many people here and we have to do something,” Shen said.
Wong said the recent string of break-ins have her worried and left feeling on edge. The homes of Wong’s relatives, including Chin, were targeted in two of the five break-ins. Wong now keeps her windows shut, and is concerned for her family’s safety.
“A lot of my friends feel the same way -- should we leave the house?” she said.
Chin, who was raised in Newton, said his home’s surveillance system recorded images of the suspect, who broke in by smashing open a glass patio door while the house was empty.
The suspect stole jewelry that was passed down to Chin and his wife from their families. The property taken had great sentimental value, especially for Chin, whose parents died from COVID-19 during the pandemic.
“Not only were we dealing with that... but this hits us,” Chin said. “That can’t be replaced.”