A spree of break-ins last week has left many business owners with shattered windows to clean up and a lot of frustration to go with it.
Thieves hit no fewer than seven businesses in the Main Street area of downtown in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Sept. 28, according to Cpl. Sandra Milner of the Westlock RCMP.
“The first alarm call came in at 21 minutes after midnight,” she said. “There was a member right in the vicinity who had been patrolling right in the downtown area.”
The response time to that first call was within 30 seconds, she added, but even so the suspects had already fled the scene. Milner said RCMP members continued to make patrols in the area between around 12:30 a.m. and about 2:00 a.m., when they discovered the rest of the break-ins.
The most recent thefts come on the heels of a series of break-ins in town the week before, and many more in the past few months. Milner said at this point, she cannot say if the incidents are all related, but said they all happened in essentially the same way.
“Windows were broken and cash was taken from the businesses,” she said. “Whether it’s the same suspect or group of suspects still remains open.”
Milner said RCMP would not confirm the names of the businesses broken into, but several of the affected business owners have confirmed that thieves broke into Oxygen, Beauty Inspirations, Outback and Tranquility Salon.
Many of the business owners reported that the thieves apparently seemed to know what they were looking for, going directly for the cash register or cash boxes, and the fact that all the incidents took place within less than two hours of each other has many of them puzzled.
“How can you break in to six or seven places in one night and not be noticed,” asked Tanya Ehlmer, one of the co-owners of Outback.
She said the break-in would make her consider installing some extra security measures, such as bars on the windows or security cameras.
Regina Ehmler, another co-owner of the store, said while she’s not happy the store was broken into, she’s satisfied with the police response.
“The cops can only do so much,” she said. “They were here, they did their job and I’m hoping they will find them.”
Next door, Tranquility owner Carey Dzivinski was also frustrated and said more should be done about the break-ins.
“We need more patrolling by the RCMP, and maybe look at the town getting cameras,” she said.
Like other business owners involved, she said the small amount of cash the thieves stole is tiny compared to the hassle and cost of repairing the damage done and implementing new security measures. “Now I’ve got to work on getting extra security, which is money out of my own pocket,” she said.
Instead of her own pocket, she said, the town should be doing more to monitor the area and improve security.
The idea of improved security is one that Coun. Robin Brett said he is open to, adding that he asked administration to look into the cost of hiring a security patrol for some areas of downtown, after having had some casual discussion about the idea several months ago.
“I did hear about the recent break-ins, and it just brought it to a head,” he said. “This is the best time to do it, because we’re about to enter into budget (discussions).”
As for cameras, Brett said that while he would not rule the idea out, he would prefer to see people instead of technology.
“It has its place, but choosing between the two, my personal feeling is you go with a human being,” he said. Video surveillance has its place, but often the result is just a blurry image of “some guy in a hoodie.”
He said he has heard some positive feedback about the idea, and even heard the suggestion that some local business owners would be open to the idea of cost-sharing for security.
Milner said while additional security would not be a bad thing, the idea of security cameras can be a double-edged sword, but said it would be helpful with respect to police efforts to catch criminals.
“I know some communities in Canada have those and it’s been contentious because of privacy issues, but it would definitely help in identifying suspects, number of suspects and vehicles,” she said.
As with any ongoing investigation, Milner added, any help from the public is always appreciated.
“People might think what they know doesn’t have any significance, but if they do have any information about vehicles or anything suspicious in that time period, we ask that the please call us with that information,” she said. The phone number for the Westlock RCMP detachment is 780-349-4491.