Heather Morris crosses her arms across her chest as if to reassure herself. She's recalling the thoughts that ran through her mind when she reviewed the personal security camera footage that recently captured a man in a bathrobe masturbating outside her Westside home. Morris says the images made her stomach churn. "Oh my God," she recalls thinking, "who is this guy?"
Morris, who lives alone with her dog Griffin, was sleeping in her bedroom when the perpetrator appeared on July 15 at her back door just before 5 a.m. She surmises that the sound of a fan helped hide the man's presence from the typically protective Griffin.
The July 15 incident marked the second time in one week that Morris' security cameras captured a stranger lurking on her property. Five days earlier, Morris discovered her screen door had been cut and a substance akin to petroleum jelly smeared across it.
Morris, a self-proclaimed computer geek who works as a systems and network administrator for a local software development company, says she purchased a Dropcam home security camera three years ago for $99. She wanted the system mostly to keep an eye on Griffin, who was newly adopted and still learning house rules; one selling point was a feature that allowed her to speak remotely through the camera. "I'd be like, 'Griffin, get off the couch,'" Morris says.
At the time, Morris' friends thought the purchase eccentric. "Everyone thought that I was weird," she says. Now, in the wake of recent events, her friends have changed their mind. In fact, Morris is part of a growing number of homeowners investing in personal security and surveillance systems to protect their property.
Morris says the camera she placed atop her refrigerator documented both trespassing incidents. The footage from the first night didn't record the suspect's face because it was too dark. The second time, a worried Morris had left a light on above the back door, enabling the camera to capture a clear image.
Morris posted video feeds of both visits on Facebook. The second recording, which she titled "Wanker," garnered hundreds of hits and was shared throughout social media. Local radio station The Blaze 96.3 dubbed the suspect the "Westside Wanker."
One day after the "Wanker" post went viral, the Missoula Police Department had a suspect in custody. MPD Public Information Officer Travis Welsh says the footage was instrumental in helping law enforcement identify the perpetrator. "It was that clear, very specific photograph that helped people see who we were asking about," Welsh says.
- Security camera footage taken from Heather Morris’ Westside home helped police identify the man who masturbated outside her residence during the early morning hours of July 15.
Police are still trying to link the man captured in the July 15 incident to the earlier occurrence, and have decided not to publicly identify him yet. Welsh does say that he faces two misdemeanor charges, surreptitious visual observation and criminal trespass, both misdemeanors. If police can show that he also attempted to burglarize Morris' home, the suspect faces felony charges.
Welsh and other security experts, such as Shaun Barnes, who owns consulting firm Montana Technology Services, say the Morris case highlights a trend of middle-class property owners increasingly installing security cameras.
Barnes, who's installed surveillance systems in homes across western Montana, including at the high-end Yellowstone Club, says just five years ago the expense and complication of installing such systems kept them largely limited to "only the super wealthy." But a combination of forces, including price and improved technology, are responsible for making the cameras more accessible to the general public. He points to new systems that enable homeowners to monitor their property remotely via smart phones and tablets, and cumbersome wiring setups being replaced by wireless options. "Most people can do this themselves," Barnes says, though his business has picked up. During the past month alone, he says he's installed five home surveillance systems in Missoula.
According to market research firm IHS, worldwide video surveillance sales are expected to expand by more than 12 percent this year to $15.9 billion, up from $14.1 billion in 2013.
The increasing prevalence of home surveillance systems is prompting law enforcement in a handful of cities to ask property owners to register their systems on central databases, enabling police to more easily access footage of criminal behavior. For instance, Philadelphia rolled out a program in 2011 for property owners to voluntarily register their cameras with the city. Prior to the database's creation, police were relegated to going door-to-door to track privately captured footage of unlawful behavior.
The California communities of San Leandro, Vallejo and Fremont have launched similar databases. A San Jose city councilman last year proposed taking the registry template one step further, recommending that law enforcement be allowed to remotely access registered video feeds.
Civil libertarians have called the San Jose proposal Orwellian and cautioned it could set a dangerous precedent. A representative from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group, told the San Jose Mercury News in January, "Once you give the police unfettered access 24/7, you're relying on them to exercise their restraint."
As for Morris, she feels thankful for the cameras. She says they provide an extra level of security. In the wake of the recent publicity, she says it's now something her neighbors are considering.
"Everybody is saying, 'Wow, I think I might get one,'" Morris says.