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Patrick Barlow watched and knew when no one was home.

In the process, this one-man crime spree broke into dozens of houses in the Buffalo area -- driving Cheektowaga's burglaries up in 1998 -- before police eventually caught up with him in February.

"Most of the burglaries I would do during the day. I would steal early to get money for dope," Barlow confessed to Cheektowaga police. "I bet I did over a hundred burglaries."

Cheektowaga had the dubious distinction of having the highest crime rate among Buffalo's suburbs last year -- 33 crimes per 1,000 residents, crime statistics show -- thanks mostly to thieves like Barlow who stole from homes or the town's vast selection of shopping centers.

But despite the increased burglaries, crime overall went down last year in Cheektowaga -- and most other Erie County suburbs, for that matter -- following the trend experienced in Buffalo and the rest of the nation, according to 1998 statistics compiled and recently released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There was no single reason for the drop, law enforcement officials say, but more effective crime prevention and the decreasing use of crack cocaine -- the drug blamed for a crime explosion in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- are factors contributing to the declining crime pattern in both cities and suburbs.

In Amherst, total crime -- property and violent crime combined -- dropped 18 percent.

In Orchard Park, crime dropped 11 percent.

In the towns of Tonawanda and Hamburg, crime decreased 9 percent.

In Cheektowaga and Depew, crime went down 7 percent.

In Lancaster -- which had the lowest crime rate among Buffalo's suburbs with 8 crimes per 1,000 residents -- crime dropped nearly 5 percent.

"Crime is going down. That's generally what the numbers are showing," said Maryvictoria Pyne, who tracks crime nationally for the FBI.

There were, however, some exceptions:

Crime overall went up last year in the villages of Kenmore and Lancaster, small communities with relatively little crime, but where even the slightest fluctuations in incidents skew the statistics.

Kenmore saw a notable increase in larcenies, which police attributed to more bicycle thefts.

Assaults doubled in Orchard Park -- from 6 to 12 -- but the problem is in the stands at Ralph Wilson Stadium, not Orchard Park streets, said Orchard Park Police Chief Samuel M. McCune.

Violent crime -- grouped as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and assault -- went up last year in Hamburg, Cheektowaga, West Seneca and the Town of Tonawanda due to a few more robberies or assaults.

Hamburg had the highest violent-crime rate among Buffalo's suburbs -- 3.6 incidents per 1,000 residents -- because it recorded the most assaults last year with 167, statistics show.

Hamburg police note, however, that the number of assaults may be deceiving when making comparisons, because law-enforcement agencies have different methods for recording and reporting crimes.

Both violent and property crimes dropped last year in Amherst, but the community lost its status as "safest city" in the nation, a title it had held for three straight years.

The annual safest-city rankings -- computed by Morgan Quitno Press, a Kansas-based research company -- dropped Amherst to No. 2 on the national list behind Newton, Mass. because of two homicides in 1998.

Burglaries dropped in most communities, but went up 3 percent in Cheektowaga, 9 percent in Lackawanna, 12 percent in the Village of Lancaster and 17 percent in Kenmore.

In fact, if anything, it's the property crimes -- burglaries, larcenies and auto theft -- that are the main problem for suburban residents.

Even though property crime generally is on the decline, Buffalo's suburbs have 17 times more property crimes than violent crimes.

There were 838 cars and homes broken into in Cheektowaga last year; 394 homes and cars in Hamburg; 294 in the Town of Tonawanda; and 251 in West Seneca.

And arguably, police said, it's burglary -- and burglars like Barlow -- that homeowners worry about the most.

Barlow would scout area neighborhoods. The 41-year-old would watch for someone to leave a house. He'd use a screwdriver to pry open a door or break a back window to slip in on the first floor. He preferred to steal cash, jewelry or credit cards for drugs.

"Today I left the West Side and drove to Cheektowaga to look for a place to rob," Barlow told police. "I found some houses that looked good.

"I parked the car on a dead end," Barlow said in a statement to police, "I then walked down a street. I saw no cars in a driveway. I rang the doorbell and knocked on the back door. There was no answer. If somebody had answered, I would ask for somebody that would not be there and tell them I made a mistake."

Barlow was indicted on three counts of burglary in Cheektowaga and Buffalo shortly after his arrest, and is serving two years in prison, according to the Erie County district attorney's office.

In fact, police said, when burglaries drop -- like they did in Amherst, Orchard Park and West Seneca last year -- it's usually the result of catching and jailing a culprit wreaking havoc on more than one community.

"There aren't thousands of people who are committing these crimes," said Robert J. Rowland, assistant chief in the Town of Tonawanda. "It tends to be a small group and if they're incarcerated for a while, the burglaries go down."

In addition, more and more property owners are installing home-security systems, which is making a difference, added Ronald H. Hagelberger, Amherst's assistant chief of police.

Also, Hagelberger said, some thieves have moved toward white-collar crime -- such as credit card scams -- rather than risk getting caught breaking into a home.

Right now -- the holiday season, combined with fewer hours of daylight -- tends to be a favorite time of year for thieves.

"Generally," said Cheektowaga Capt. Thomas E. Rowan, "we'll see an increase of burglaries in the beginning of November to January because the merchandise has moved from the stores to the houses."

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