Law enforcement officers see similarities between Bluffton, Hilton Head shop break-ins

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Law enforcement officers see similarities between Bluffton, Hilton Head shop break-ins

By CASSIE FOSS
cfoss@islandpacket.com
Published Friday, November 25, 2011   |  715 Words  |  

The scene at the Bluffton-Jasper County Volunteers in Medicine Clinic was similar to those at several other business and small shops in southern Beaufort County during the past two months.

A stone was used to smash a front window of the small building at 132 Bluffton Road sometime last weekend. The locked office doors were broken down, and the pharmacy, lab and other offices were ransacked. Two desktop computers and an air compressor were stolen, volunteer office manager Laurie Shay said.

And as with the other similar break-ins, the robbery brought business to a halt. The staff had to sort through records to make sure patients' privacy had not been compromised.

At least 30 similar break-ins have occurred since early October at businesses in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island. Sheriff's Office and Bluffton police investigators believe they might be related.

In one batch of break-ins -- mostly at restaurants -- thieves go for cash, often taking cash registers, and are in and out quickly, Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. The thieves who have broken into medical offices seem to be seeking electronics, such as computers and flat-screen TVs, he said.

"I think we have two different types of break-ins that have some relation to one another," Tanner said. "Whether it's two different independent groups or the same group who let the businesses dictates what is stolen, we don't know."

Related or not, local law enforcement say they are seeing more break-ins overall than normal. "When you combine the two, it absolutely is a lot of incidents," Tanner said.

The break-ins have occurred at stores in small shopping complexes, such as Pretty Woman Day Spa at Plantation Park Drive, and restaurants, such as Jade Garden on Fording Island Road.

Surveillance footage from several of the break-ins shows one or more thieves concealing their faces with clothing, making it difficult to identify the suspects, Tanner said.

Most of the victimized businesses within Bluffton town limits did not have surveillance cameras, according to police Sgt. Joe Babkiewicz.

Police are investigating about 11 similar break-ins, an "unusually high" number, according to Babkiewicz, who has been employed at the Bluffton department for three years.

"We've never had a stretch of break-ins like this since I've been here," he said.

He said the thieves often target small businesses that don't have a lot of security.

Babkiewicz and other officers have visited shops to share security tips with employees.

"I've noticed that a lot of businesses have timers that shut lights down at midnight, so from midnight to opening, there's not a lot of lighting," Babkiewicz said. "Extra lights and motion lighting are good investments."

Tanner recommended business owners consider applying 3M treatment -- similar to tinting vehicle windows -- to exterior windows.

"It's a plastic coating, almost like rubber, that makes glass extremely difficult to break," he said.

Investigators also recommend managers remove extra cash from registers and businesses overnight. Both agencies offer escorts to banks for those who don't feel comfortable going alone to make large deposits.

Law enforcement officers also urge people who see something suspicious to call authorities.

More officers will be patrolling, Tanner said.

"When we start seeing spikes in certain areas and around the holiday season, we move some deputies around and create some extra patrols," he said.

At the Volunteers in Medicine clinic in Bluffton on Monday, the loss of the computers forced volunteers to delay appointments for 12 needy patients, office manager Shay said. Plans for dental patients also are on hold until the office can buy a new air compressor.

"We're lucky it wasn't worse," she said.

Follow reporter Cassie Foss at twitter.com/LcBlotter.com.

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