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Discover Mid-America— May 2011

Something old, something stolen:
Antique mall thefts

By Rhiannon Ross

In March, thieves hammered through a wall to access the Wheatland Antique Mall in Topeka, KS.

“They emptied a rotating coin showcase and took a hammer to showcase trays,” said Sue Ortiz, co-owner, with her husband Tom, of the mall. Five vendors lost merchandise totaling $44,000.

“We have no intention of ever carrying coins again,” Sue Ortiz said. “It’s too enticing to thieves. If they don’t spend it, they can smelt it. It’s a fast turn-around and hard to ID.”

Gold and silver are easier to trade than other types of merchandise, said Sgt. David Speiser, Clinton County (MO) Sheriff’s Dept., Plattsburg, MO.

“Usually within 24 hours thieves sell it. And with gold prices close to $1,500 an ounce and silver at $40 an ounce, it’s a nice chunk of change,” he said. “The costs of living for thieves have gone up too, for food, transportation and dope. Most have some sort of drug habit and it’s easier to steal than work for it.”

Sgt. Speiser is investigating a theft that occurred in April at Enchanted Frog Antiques in Lathrop, MO, where gold and silver jewelry estimated at $4,500 was stolen from showcases during working hours.

“We’re no longer dealing with just shoplifting,” said Joyce Steinbuch, co-owner, along with her mother Laveigh Rooney, of Enchanted Frog. “We’re dealing with professional thieves who bring their own tools with them and take locks out. It’s a new issue for this part of the country.”

In another store theft, Steinbuch said a man drilled a small circle in a glass showcase, during store hours, to steal jewelry. Another time, a man hid inside of a broom closet and waited until after hours to steal.

“Now the closet is locked with a padlock,” Steinbuch said.

Theft tactics

David and LuAnn Riggs, owners of Artichoke Annie’s Antique Mall in Columbia, MO, also discourage dealers from selling coins at their mall.

“It’s a high-risk inventory that destroys our property,” David Riggs said.

And while they have not had any break-ins, thieves are picking locks of showcases while their store is open, too.

“It’s usually when we get busy and normally there are two or three of them working together. They have look-outs,” he said. “People are extremely good at what they do. They catch you when you’re most vulnerable and they’re difficult to catch.”

Marie Landry, Washburn View Antique MallMarie Landry, owner of Washburn View Antique Mall, Topeka, KS, has posted a sign on her door that informs customers that concealed weapons are on the premises. (photo by Bruce Rodgers)

Mall owners said thieves use distraction tactics such as having one person request to see something in a showcase while their companion steals from another; consuming their time with phone calls to get them off of the floor while, again, a companion steals; and even spilling something in an aisle to cause a commotion.

“One woman had someone divert me to the back of the store while she grabbed stoneware pitchers, priced at $150 to $300, at the front of the store and took them right out and put them in her car and drove away,” Steinbuch said. “She stole four pitchers.”

Petty theft is mostly low-end stuff, Sue Ortiz said. “I’ve never, ever had the real antique be the thing they’re after,” she added.

Mall owners said that thieves also remove or switch tags on merchandise, stuff things into oversized bags, and even hide items beneath oversized clothing, including between their thighs. Some people even resort to using their children as look-outs.

“Two Roseville vases in my store went out in a baby stroller,” Steinbuch said. “With the baby!”

Learning to be proactive

Mall owners are becoming more proactive in combating theft. For one thing, they alert one another when theft occurs in their malls.

“It’s not uncommon for thieves to hit a geographic area in a short period of time,” Steinbuch said.

Joyce Steinbuch, Enchanted FrogJoyce Steinbuch, co-owner of Enchanted Frog Antiques, Lathrop, MO, demonstrates how her new closed circuit TV surveillance system works. (photo by Rhiannon Ross)

Steinbuch has long had a closed circuit TV security system but recently she added more cameras, including one that photographs the parking lot. She also purchased a color monitor and upgraded locks on showcases.

When she was robbed in April, photographs of the suspect were circulated by the Sheriff’s office in a four-state area. Sgt. Speiser said at the time that the suspect also hit up to three other counties in a very short time period.

Steinbuch also encourages shoppers to lock their bags in lockers at the front of her store and has a firm store policy that doesn’t allow customers to tote items they wish to buy around the mall with them.

“We will take it from the customer and hold it up front,” she said. “I say, ‘I’ll take that.’ We don’t give them a choice, even if they say they wish to match it to something.”

The Riggs, who also have closed circuit TV surveillance, have added color monitors and additional cameras to their mall, as well as an outdoor camera to capture license plate numbers.

“We can get 32 different shots; 31 inside and one outside,” David Riggs said. “We’ve also hired folks whose only job is to continuously walk the store and check the showcases and the booths. They don’t cashier but they do wait on customers.”

He admits that it’s an expense he considers necessary if he is to continue to attract and keep good dealers.

More serious measures

Like the others, Marie Landry, owner of Washburn View Antique Mall, Topeka, KS, also reports an increase in coins and jewelry thefts. Last fall, a man and his girlfriend stole $4,000-worth of jewelry and coins from her mall, with the girlfriend serving as a look-out.

And also like the others, she has purchased more surveillance equipment and her staff has stepped up the frequency of showcase checks.

However, Landry has taken security measures at her mall one step further. On the outside of her mall, she has posted a sign that announces that conceal and carry guns are on the premises.

Landry also finds that she’s become more guarded with out-of-towners and others she doesn’t know and has learned to trust her gut instinct if something doesn’t seem right.

“But you just don’t know who it could be anymore,” she said. “It could even be a well-to-do person. Last year, an older woman bought a couple hundred dollars-worth of things but stole a little blue vase.”

Sue Ortiz would like to see law enforcement get more serious about prosecuting thieves who hit antique malls.

“I’ve worked with local police and I’m pretty frustrated in trying to get anything done about it because small theft is pretty low on the totem pole as far as importance,” she said. “Even with thefts as much as $1,000 to $2,000, it’s not a big deal.”

Too often budget cuts can result in severe cuts in law enforcement personnel, Sgt. Speiser said.

“We have to do more with less,” he added. “Especially in rural communities, we haven’t got a whole lot to begin with. It is a strain.”

Fortunately, Sgt. Speiser said, Clinton County Maj. John Farmer has made arrests of antique mall thieves a priority. “He always says, ‘our dopers are also our burglars.’

“We solve a lot of crimes this way,” Sgt. Speiser said.

Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com.