When the knock comes at the door late at night, the men outside are waiting to see if a light comes on, a dog barks or there's any other signs of life inside.


"Two, three in the morning, they ring the doorbell, to see if you're home," said Don "Muggsy" Drzewiecki. "That's the purpose of it."


If there's no one obviously home, they move in. In one case, would-be burglars threw a rock through a window to see if anyone inside would turn on a light.


Finally, the residents of Drzewiecki's neighborhood had enough.


Drzewiecki and his wife moved into the 82-unit Mesa Estates development off of Lake Arrowhead Road in April 2006, attracted to the well-groomed lawns, two-story homes and beautiful mountain views.


"I pretty much made this property my paradise," he said. Drzewiecki and his wife are raising their two young sons in the house, even as foreclosures emptied out a good portion of Mesa Estates.


"I used to run and count them," said Drzewiecki, who counted at least 25 foreclosures among the 82 houses. (Some of them were subsequently sold to new owners.)


The houses are nice, but many of them were purchased near the peak of the housing bubble, and the remaining owners are mortgaged to the hilt.


"Three-quarters of them are not rich. They're struggling; 95 percent of them can't refinance."


Thieves would even back up their trucks in the middle of the day and steal solar lights out of residents' front yards or walk off with lawn ornaments.


So the residents of Mesa Estates decided to get organized, kicking their neighborhood watch program up into high gear.


And they drafted Drzewiecki, a retired Marine who served in Iraq in 1994, as their neighborhood watch captain.


"I'm not scared to walk out into the street when someone's racing down it at 55 miles per hour," he said.


He's bought graffiti-proof neighborhood watch signs that have been going up around the neighborhood and residents are collectively spending more time outdoors at night, keeping an eye on things when they go for walks, asking strangers what they're doing in Mesa Estates and noting down the license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles.


"The neighbors now are like a nest of Africanized honey bees," said Drzewiecki. "I have half the neighborhood in the watch. Basically every other house in the neighborhood, I've got a pair of eyes."


"Neighborhood watch programs are a good program," said Roxanne Walker, who administers the program for the Hesperia station of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, "Especially if you work the program, like they seem to be doing."


But it's an arms race in the half-empty neighborhoods of the High Desert that were decimated by the collapse of the housing market. The remaining residents are watching, but the thieves aren't giving up yet.


"Thieves are getting smarter now," said Drzewiecki. "They're driving by during the day, casing the joint, seeing what's going on."


But incidents are down in Mesa Estates, where residents have invested in alarms, security cameras and floodlights hooked up to motion sensors.


"If you're looking for a neighborhood to rob, don't pick this one," said Drzewiecki. "You're going to get caught."


To set up a neighborhood watch in your community, call your local sheriff's station. In Hesperia, call 947-1549.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.