TOWER— When a burglar fled Vermilion Fuel and Food in the early morning hours last March 3, he left a veritable trail of bread crumbs to his hideout. Apparently, a hole in the bag that the …
TOWER— When a burglar fled Vermilion Fuel and Food in the early morning hours last March 3, he left a veritable trail of bread crumbs to his hideout. Apparently, a hole in the bag that the thief had brought along to carry his loot allowed a variety of stolen items, including lottery tickets and candy, to fall out as he rode his bicycle— yes, his bicycle— back to the Vermilion Housing apartments, where he was staying.
It didn’t take sheriff’s deputies long to pick up the scent, which led them to the thief’s door.
When deputies viewed video footage, they were able to spot the young man. Terry Wagoner, who owns and operates Fuel and Food, recognized him immediately.
Sounds like an open and shut case?
As more than one Tower business owner has discovered in the past year, the wheels of law enforcement and justice can turn slowly, and that’s proven frustrating as financial losses and hassles due to theft and loss of business have added up.
Few have been hit as hard as Tom Anderson, who operates the community’s only car wash. He suffered break-ins in March and again in May, with the second incident coming in the middle of the afternoon on a busy Saturday as customers went in and out of the automatic wash bay.
“It was so brazen,” said Anderson, who reported both incidents to the sheriff’s office. The May break-in was the apparent work of three individuals working in concert, who used crow bars to break into the change machine inside the car wash lobby, stealing money as well as tools that Anderson had on site.
Using video footage from a neighboring business, Anderson recognized the vehicle used in the heist, a blue Ford Explorer that he had seen before around town. He followed them home one night, to the Vermilion Housing apartments. The sheriff’s office later executed a search warrant at the apartment, but Anderson said they didn’t find the stolen tools, so the case has languished. “They knew who they were, but they couldn’t find the stolen stuff so it never moved forward,” said Anderson.
That’s further than the investigation got with the first incident, after video footage wasn’t sufficient to allow for a likely identification of the suspect, who Anderson said stole cash by smashing into the car wash’s meter box. Anderson figures the thief got away with somewhere between $400 and $600.
He suffered further losses in the past year as a result of another Tower resident who regularly posted “closed” signs in front of the car wash. Anderson figures the individual has cost him thousands of dollars in lost business. Like many of the others, that individual was identified through video surveillance footage, but law enforcement officials said while the individual was clearly a significant nuisance, it didn’t appear he was actually breaking any laws. The sheriff’s office has since served him with a letter warning him he’ll face trespassing charges if he is caught entering the car wash property in the future.
Julie Petrzilka, earlier this month, faced a similar situation when a local resident, who was likely intoxicated, walked into her business late at night, through a door that an employee had mistakenly left unlocked. Petrzilka operates Rick’s Relics, a secondhand variety store, and video footage from inside the store showed the individual, a middle-aged male, wandering into the business. She posted the footage to Facebook and it didn’t take long for viewers to identify the intruder. Yet, again, said Petrzilka, there wasn’t much law enforcement could do. “He didn’t break in and he didn’t take anything,” she said. Even so, she described the incident as “creepy.”
Main Street business owners here find these frequent incidents troubling. Are they negatively impacting their business? “Big time,” said Anderson.
Wagoner estimates that his burglar, who forced his way into the store while it was closed, took about $1,200-$1,500 worth of merchandise, plus a laptop computer. While many business insurance policies will cover losses from theft, Wagoner said he never reported it in the end. “I’ve got a deductible anyway, and they would have probably raised my rates,” he said.
While the trail of evidence to the thief’s door likely would have been enough to justify a search warrant, it turns out the apartment was listed in the name of the perpetrator’s brother, which meant his permission was needed to undertake a search, according to Wagoner. “They said their hands were tied,” Wagoner added, referring to investigators.
Investigations and prosecutions face challenges
Law enforcement officials face questions and frustrations from crime victims all the time. When asked about the Fuel and Food case, St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman, urged patience and noted that knowing the identity of a perpetrator isn’t the same as having a case ready to prosecute. “Much like everyone, we too have an opinion as to who is responsible for the crime,” he said. “Our burden is to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt— and we are not there yet.”
Investigations can take time, sometimes months or even years, and some cases are never resolved due to lack of evidence and law enforcement resources.
Sometimes, the wait does yield results, and a prosecution. A case of serious vandalism at Tower City Hall on Labor Day weekend of 2020, is finally set to be charged more than a year after the incident. That’s according to Aaron Welch, an assistant St. Louis County Attorney based in Virginia. The county attorney’s office wasn’t releasing the name of the perpetrator of that incident until the charge is officially approved by the court. Look for an update in an upcoming issue of the Timberjay.
Sometimes, the case is made relatively early. That was the case with the late night break-in at Zup’s Grocery in late 2018. Video footage showed a single individual, who broke in and stole a safe from the store’s office. It turns out, law enforcement had previous experience with the individual, Charles Mark Jackson, then age 46, and they were able to make the case. After more than a year of legal proceedings, Jackson pled guilty to second degree burglary in the case. He was later sentenced to 21 months in state prison for his crime and ordered to pay over $11,000 in restitution.
Whether other businesses in town will eventually see justice remains to be seen. For now, Wagoner remains frustrated with the standstill in his case. And when he offered to gather some possible evidence by setting up a trail camera near the apartment, he said he was told he could be prosecuted himself if he did so.
Anderson said he was told limited resources and a burgeoning case load of more serious crime, often puts cases like his on the back burner. “Talking to one of the prosecutors, I was told these kinds of crimes are small potatoes overall,” he said. “But they’re harmful to me, to businesses in town and the community,” he added.
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