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There has been an outbreak of camera store burglaries in the U.S. since 2016. Are they connected?

With ninja-like precision, a team of thieves ransacked the Pro Photo Connection store in Irvine on May 11 stealing about $160,000 in cameras and equipment in less than 26 minutes.
The thieves (a security video shows four and possibly five suspects with one suspect directing the others) cut a hole in the roof, cut the alarm, hauled merchandise out of the store in large cardboard boxes and kicked in the store owner’s office door. They wore baseball-type caps and hoodies with painter’s masks. They drove off in a white van.

They were so focused on Nikon and Canon cameras, they didn’t touch store owner Jan Oldfield’s collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia – Elvis dolls, puzzles, cookbooks, a Christmas hat and other figurines – that she keeps in her office. One of the thieves kicked open the door to her office, passed up dozens of Elvis items, took her computer and walked out of the store with a limp.
“I’m sorry he didn’t break his neck,” Oldfield said.
Her frustration has been felt all over Southern California, up and down the state and across the nation. In the past two years, independent photo stores have been the targets of thieves who may have connections to a black market for photo equipment in South America. Several store owners believe the break-ins are related.
The Southern California News Group found 11 burglaries of photo stores since December 2016 with the majority of those happening recently south of Los Angeles. Pro Photo Connection (Irvine), Tuttle Cameras (Long Beach – twice), Paul’s Photo (Torrance – three times) and Powell Camera Shop (Covina) have all been burglarized since April. Woodland Hills Camera was hit in December of 2016.
There are recent California photo store burglaries in San Luis Obispo, San Bruno, Fresno and Campbell, though the sheriff’s departments in Riverside and San Bernardino counties reported no similar burglaries. Additionally, stories in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis have also been hit.
So far, the police have shown little appetite for following or connecting the cases. One arrest was made in Torrance, but police have refused to release the name of the suspect. Charges are expected to be filed next week.
“I wasn’t aware of other cases,” said Irvine detective Justin Brouwer, who investigated the Irvine break-in.
A Torrance Police Department spokesman refused to say if the Torrance burglaries were related to any others or if Torrance detectives are pursuing a connection.
“I don’t know how broad the detectives’ cases are,” Torrance public information officer Ronald Harris said. “They’re still working on that right now.”
Store owners, in many cases, feel like they are on their own when it comes to battling this crime wave. They’ve installed metal walls, alarm systems, vaults and motion detectors, and they employed security guards. In one store, employees took turns sleeping in the parking lot to keep an eye on their stores.
Another store has installed “Smoke Cloak,” which, when triggered, sprays a cloud that will stick to the skin of the burglar and show up on DNA testing if that burglar is ever caught.
“The police will write the report so you can get your insurance money,” said Mark Thiel, owner of the Powell Camera Shop in Covina. “That’s where it ends. There is no investigation.”
The thieves have employed four methods of breaking in. They cut holes in the roof. They smash through the store’s front window. They pry open the front door. Or they break into the building next door and hack through the adjoining wall.
“These guys were in and out in less than a minute,” said Eric Vitwar, the owner of Tuttle Cameras in Long Beach. He’s talking about the first burglary at his store on Nov. 17, 2017. In that case, the thieves hitched a cable to his front security gate, attached it to their car, and yanked the whole gate off.
They left behind only a snapped cable.
“This is happening nationwide,” Vitwar said. “But there seems to be extremely concentrated here (in Southern California). Maybe there’s a supplier putting out a call for merchandise. Maybe there are stores in South America.”
Mark Comon, the owner at Paul’s Photo in Torrance, said the thieves who hit his store (on April 4, April 18 and Aug. 7) knew what they were after.
“It seems like they have a shopping list,” Comon said.
In the Aug. 7 heist in Torrance, the thieves tripped the alarm. Police were on the scene while the thieves were fleeing the store. One woman was caught. Comon said police told him the woman was from Argentina. Charges are expected to be filed on her next week.
“They go right from here to the dock,” Comon said. “The merchandise is gone before the police report is written.”
The store owners believe the stolen items are being sold on the black market in South America because if they were resold in the United States, the cameras could be identified by their serial numbers.
“Not one piece of equipment has been recovered,” Comon said. “That means the stuff is not in this country.”
In Woodland Hills, store owner Farah Payan had metal walls installed. Her intention was to make it impossible for thieves to penetrate her store. She had three metal walls built back to back to back. In July 2016, thieves melted holes in all three walls and crawled through.
“They cleaned us out,” Payan said. She had stopped paying insurance premiums after previous burglaries took her costs too high. So she had to absorb the $150,000 in losses from the latest heist in December 2016.
“We’ve been hit so many times, I’ve lost count,” said Payan, who said her employees have slept in the parking lot on occasion to prevent other break-ins. “These guys really know what they’re doing.”
Payan criticized the police response.
“The cops are kind and attentive,” she said, “but there is no follow-up.”
Moishe Appelbaum, owner of Midwest Photo in Columbus, Ohio, said he believes many of the cases across the country are related. The other thing they have in common is the disinterest of the police.
“I couldn’t get my detective to follow up,” Appelbaum said. “I couldn’t get the FBI to follow up.”
In Argentina, the value of the peso is volatile. So a healthy black market has developed where goods are exchanged for dollars. However, shipping vessels leaving the Port of Long Beach, for example, to Argentina are rare said Port spokesman Lee Peterson. Calls to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office to find out about efforts to stop the trafficking of stolen goods were not returned.
“These guys are selling millions of dollars worth of goods, and they’re getting away with it,” Appelbaum said.
In Irvine, the owners at Pro Photo Connection have installed steel doors, security cameras, an alarm system and steel frames for doors (making them more difficult to kick in).
In the heist in May, thieves took 164 items. In dramatic security camera footage, the thieves seemed to be led by one suspect, who points directions as they take cameras and equipment out of the store. They open the back roll-down door, pull a white van into the warehouse and load up the stolen gear.
Owner Jan Oldfield was happy they didn’t get her Elvis collection.
“What they were able to do in less than a half hour was impressive,” said Oldfield, whose license plate number is LOKN4EP (Looking for Elvis Presley).
But she doesn’t have much hope for justice.
She might have a better chance of finding Elvis.

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