BELFAST, Maine — Last November, a burglar who was breaking into Belfast houses at night — in some cases stealing wallets from pants hanging on bedposts while people slept inches away — terrified many in the community.
On Thursday, 23-year-old Jason Beal of Belfast was sentenced at Waldo County Superior Court to spend five years and three months in prison. He had pleaded guilty to several Class B burglary charges, which both his defense attorney and the prosecutor pointed out after the hearing was concluded likely would have had a much more severe penalty in the past.
“A nighttime burglary of an occupied dwelling — I believe that these are crimes that 100 years ago would have been punishable by death,” Waldo County Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker said. “I’m very disappointed by the sentence. He’s young, but he’s incredibly dangerous. He’s just lucky that no one has been killed because of his actions.”
But Lisa Whittier, Beal’s court-appointed attorney, said that she believes Justice Robert Murray handed down a fair sentence.
“He’s an extremely young man, with a life ahead of him,” she said.
During the Rule 11 hearing that preceded the sentencing, Walker described the case he would have presented if Beal had pleaded not guilty and requested a trial. He said that one woman burglarized by Beal, a 79-year-old widow, was woken up during the burglary. She yelled at Beal to get out of her house, and then barricaded herself in her bedroom for hours until dawn, when she felt safe enough to come out and call police.
Another man who was home when Beal broke into his home thought at first he was hearing noises made by his teenage son. When he found out that he had been burglarized, he was deeply distressed and still sleeps with a baseball bat beside his bed, Walker told the court.
Beal was arrested and charged with the six late-night burglaries in January after DNA evidence found on a screwdriver and cigarette butt collected at one of the crime scenes showed that he was the culprit. Belfast Police Chief Michael McFadden said before the burglaries were solved that police were afraid that someone might get shot if they continued.
“These type of burglaries are incredibly dangerous,” he told the BDN, adding that it was a very stressful time for the community and that the victims suffered the loss of their security as well as their possessions.
At the time that Beal was charged with the November burglaries, he was being held at Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset on a probation violation from an earlier offense.
His attorney told the judge that despite his criminal history, Beal, who has worked as a sous chef, has a strong work ethic and is now earning his high school equivalency diploma. Beal has had a hard life, according to his attorney, including opiate addiction and having couch-surfed from the time he was 16.
“My client is very remorseful for his conduct,” Whittier said. “He never went into those houses with any intent to hurt anyone.”
Beal said as much to the judge.
“I’d like to take full responsibility for my actions,” Beal said. “What I’ve done is wrong. I truly am sorry. Sorry doesn’t really cut it, but other than that, all I have to give is years of my life to the Department of Corrections.”
Additionally, he will pay restitution of $675 to one of the burglary victims.
It’s not enough, according to McFadden, who said that Beal’s sentence really seems to reflect his parole violation for burglaries he committed in 2009 and 2010.
“This sentence does not address in any way whatsoever the crimes he committed in Belfast,” the police chief said. “Sentences like this make it very difficult to provide this community with adequate safety. The courts did not help us out whatsoever.”
He said that he hears complaints from community members that police don’t do enough to stop crimes like this from people with past criminal records.
“The police are doing something,” McFadden said. “We’re running around here chasing people like chickens with our heads cut off, because time and time again, the courts are not using sentences as a deterrent.”