Business owners respond to spurt of theft

Several Vashon merchants are taking measures to improve security at their businesses following a string of commercial break-ins earlier this month.

Between Thursday, May 2, and Tuesday, May 7, thieves reportedly broke into at least four Vashon businesses, sometimes making off with just change and in other cases stealing more expensive items. The Blue Heron Art Center was also broken into during that time, but it appeared nothing was stolen, said Sgt. Cindi West, a spokeswoman for the King County Sheriff’s Office.

Kathy’s Corner, a nursery that has been hit several times over the past year, was broken into twice over the course of the week. The suspect or suspects broke through a fence as they have in the past and took hundreds of flowers, trees and other plants, said nursery owner Kathy Wheaton. She said the nursery has now been burglarized eight times in the past nine months.

“It’s not funny anymore,” Wheaton said on Friday as she manned the cash register at the nursery. A sign taped to a pot by the register said she was collecting donations to help purchase a new fence and security cameras.

“It’s embarrassing, to be real honest. I’m not good at accepting help,” Wheaton said.

Dig, another nursery near town, was also broken into during the crime spurt. Syvlia Matlock, who owns the business with her husband, said she arrived at the nursery on May 7 to find that someone had climbed the fence and used bolt cutters to steal their cash register, which was locked down.

Matlock said she lost less than $100 in cash but also had to purchase a new cash register. She added that she was disheartened by the incident and decided to install a professional security system at the nursery.

“When I first opened my business, we didn’t even have a fence. That was 17 years ago,” she said. “The reality is now we have to put a system in. It’s kind of like living in the city.”

West, with the sheriff’s office, said she wasn’t aware of a significant increase in theft on Vashon, but authorities sometimes see the rates of crime go up for a time in the spring or summer when the weather improves.

“Typically, it’s people being outside more,” she said.

Around the same time as the incident at Dig, Pandora’s Box and Zuzu’s Ice Cream at the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie were each broken into by suspects who crawled in through windows and made off with any cash or change they could find.

Sue Kelly, who owns Zuzu’s, lost about $50 in all, but still felt “stupid,” she said.

“This was a wakeup call to me,” she added, saying she would begin removing all cash and change from the store at night and is seriously considering some added security measures.

Cheryl Pruett, who owns Pandora’s Box, said she, too, is beefing up security after her recent break-in, installing security cameras around the large pet store. Whoever broke into her shop, she said, smashed donation jars for Vashon Island Pet Protectors and Ferret Shelter Northwest, making off with probably $20 or less.

“It’s disturbing,” she said. “It makes you feel kind of dirty and irritated.”

West said that police responded to all of the recent break-ins on Vashon, but often nighttime burglaries are difficult to solve. There are usually no witnesses to the crime or photos or video of the suspect, she said, and good fingerprints can be hard to find.

“A lot of burglaries go unsolved,” she said.

The sheriff’s office recommends surveillance cameras as a deterrent to theft, West said, but they’re not a guarantee of safety.

“It’s another thing that can be stolen, too,” she said.

Despite her installation of a new camera system at Pandora’s Box, Pruett said she wouldn’t be quick to assume  there’s a trend of increased crime on Vashon. Rather, she, too, said she’s noticed there’s sometimes a spurt of commercial break-ins in during this time of year.

“It has always seemed to have gone in spells, and it’s almost always in the spring,” she said. “Merchants will get hit three, four, five nights in a row, and then you don’t have anything for a long time.”

However, Wheaton, at Kathy’s Corner, said burglars can’t seem to leave her business alone lately — in the last nine months, she’s lost about $48,000 in plants. After the nursery was hit half a dozen times, customers started asking how they could help, and Wheaton has now raised about $6,000 to replace the nursery’s fence and install security cameras.

Wheaton claims she’s not alone in being a victim. Almost all islanders she tells of her experiences have said that they have either had property stolen as well or know someone who has, she said.

“People now have to lock their doors, where they didn’t six months ago. That makes me sick,” she said.

In a turn of events that Wheaton called surprising, authorities on Friday arrested a Vashon man they believe was involved in the most recent break-ins at the nursery.

West said a 31-year-old Vashon man was arrested in connection with the burglaries after a Vashon deputy noticed some plants being put in at a home on Wax Orchard Road. The deputy investigated a little further, found they were plants that had been stolen from Kathy’s Corner and traced them back to the suspect, who was then booked into jail.

“I am shocked, to be real honest, and relieved and excited,” Wheaton said last week after the arrest.

West said it was too early to know if the suspect was involved in other burglaries at Kathy’s Corner or other recent business break-ins.

Wheaton, meanwhile, said she was thankful for islanders’ support of her nursery, which she feared might be forced to shut down if plants were to continue disappearing. She said she was preparing to have security cameras installed and feeling hopeful that authorities would track down any others involved in the string of thefts.

“I don’t know how one individual could do it all,” she said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll find the rest.”

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