Prominent South Whidbey business burglarized

Lani Bryant inspects an employee locker at Freeland Cafe which was pried open when a burglar broke in and stole a change bag. - Ben Watanabe/ The Record
Lani Bryant inspects an employee locker at Freeland Cafe which was pried open when a burglar broke in and stole a change bag.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe/ The Record

Police are on the hunt for a commercial burglar on South Whidbey, and though they have a suspect in mind, the thief remains at large.

Solid evidence: a fingerprint, video footage or any other clues have proved as elusive as the burglar, leading police to suspicions and theories but no arrests.

“I think it’s probably one person,” said Island County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Laura Price. “We have a suspect in mind, someone we think might be attached to this. We just need the ‘smoking gun.’ ”

Burglaries hit businesses from Clinton to Freeland hard in the past few weeks, and they all seem to be done in a similar way.

Owners of Cozy’s Roadhouse in Clinton and the Freeland Cafe said they found their restaurants broken into over the past couple of weeks. Each was reportedly done the same way: a snipped telephone connection to disarm the alarm, and forced entry.

Lani Bryant opened the Freeland Cafe on July 13 and found the place amiss. The alarm was beeping and the front door was open. She saw desk items tossed on the floor and a staff locker pried open in the upstairs office. The cafe’s owners were vague on exactly what was taken, but estimated it to be far less than the cost of missing a busy business day on Sunday.

For Bryant, whose sister is a co-owner of the cafe, the loss was more than dollars. She was insulted that the perpetrator was likely a customer or patron.

“Whoever wrecked this place, I’ve probably made them lunch or they’ve been in this establishment,” Bryant said.

At Cozy’s in Clinton, the Cook family had to fix the century-old front door and repair the phone cable. Stephanie Cook said the burglary lasted less than 3 minutes because the phone cord was not connected to the alarm, so when the thief set foot on the floor, the alarm was triggered. A few years ago, the Cooks upgraded their security system after being burglarized and losing money, alcohol and pull tabs — paper gambling cards.

But the new alarm sent the would-be pilferer into a panic, smashing through the locked front doors and breaking off the top bolt, part of the old door’s original structure.

“It’s sad, we just had the doors refinished,” Cook said, holding the snapped off bolt segment in hand.

Owners of both places declined to list exactly what was stolen or the value. At the cafe, the owners lost a change bag and decided to upgrade their security system. One of the locker units in the office was damaged, apparently by the thief prying it open. The loss was greater than the amount taken, said Freeland Cafe co-owner Petite Hunt-Bryant. After having sheriff’s deputies inspect the restaurant and gather evidence, including searching for fingerprints, the day was half through and they decided to close the rest of the Sunday during Choochokam weekend.

“Unfortunately we were down the whole day Sunday, which is one of our busiest days,” Hunt-Bryant said.

“Every day of sales is important to us,” she added later. “We have 20 employees.”

Stephanie Cook, who owns Cozy’s with her husband Troy, said they replaced the door and upgraded their window security. But by and large, she said their alarm system worked and scared off the would-be thief from ransacking the restaurant. She was alarmed, however, by the forethought someone put into the crime.

“It’s not the normal crackhead that thinks, ‘Hey let’s get a drink at 3 a.m.,’ and that’s scary,” she said.

The Eagles Aerie in Freeland suffered a pair of similar break-ins. The social club off Highway 525 lost cash and alcohol in addition to property damage. Its security was fully disabled, and the burglar made of with thousands of dollars and did a few thousand dollars in damage.

The club was the subject of a break-in earlier this year in February, though the alleged thief was apprehended thanks to video surveillance.

“They’re getting in fairly easily through very poorly locked doors and windows, whether they’re kicking it in or using a flatbar to open the lock or the window isn’t secured,” said Island County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Laura Price, who is handling most of the commercial burglaries on South Whidbey. “Go around and look at your security. Cameras are invaluable.”

All of the commercial burglaries are still under investigation by the Island County Sheriff’s Office. Price said her office has a suspect in mind but does not have enough evidence to make an arrest.

Finding a reason for the break-ins was common for the owners and victims of larceny. They pointed to the economy, people without work and rising drug use on Whidbey.

“Unfortunately, it’s desperate times,” Hunt-Bryant said. “In our whole 40 years here, we haven’t had a break-in like this.”

Later, she added: “The island is a whole different animal now. We used to not lock our doors.”

“The reality is we have a lot of drug use, and it’s a problem,” she said.

Price gave a similar reason for why someone is targeting restaurants and places with alcohol - that it feeds someone’s lifestyle.

Several years ago, a rash of commercial theft occurred in the Freeland area. Sheriff Mark Brown recalled meeting with business owners to discuss the problem and what could be done. He said he wasn’t sure a similar meeting was necessary, citing an unfamiliarity with the current South Whidbey burglaries. But Price said she would contact the chambers of commerce to speak with business owners about how to identify security weaknesses and improvements.

“We would be very happy to meet with business owners through the chambers to talk to them and explain to them what we’re seeing,” she said.


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