Neil’s Clover Patch Cafe became the latest victim in a string of commercial burglaries on South Whidbey this past weekend.
The Bayview eatery was broken into sometime late Saturday evening or early Sunday morning. Access was gained through a tiny window and the thieves got away with $200 to $300 in loose change.
But, holding to their namesake, luck was with the Clover Patch and a suspect in the burglary was taken into custody Sunday morning. Christopher Nielsen, 29, was found passed out in a stolen vehicle in Coupeville, and a search of the car on Monday revealed money bags with the restaurant’s name on the side.
Nielsen is currently being held in the Island County Jail on unrelated charges, but the arresting officer, Lt. Mike Hawley with the Island County Sheriff’s Office, said more are likely to follow.
Clover Patch owner Neil Colburn said the entire affair was a bit strange. The thief got in by squeezing through an 18-inch-wide, metal-screened window in a food pantry. It was located behind an ice machine, which the burglar pushed aside to gain access to the rest of the building.
Colburn marveled how someone could have wiggled through the tiny space. Like the fable of Cinderella’s shoe, he said only the smallest of thieves could have fit.
“He’s gotta weigh only 70 pounds,” Colburn said.
While that fact alone might exonerate Nielsen, police apparently told the Colburns that he may have had an accomplice.
“They said he had a small friend,” said Colburn, this time bursting out laughing.
“This whole thing is getting pretty bizarre,” he said.
Hawley did not mention another person when interviewed on Monday, and it could not be clarified by press time Tuesday whether a second suspect was arrested or is believed to have been involved in the burglary.
Also, an officer based out of the sheriff’s office’s south precinct in Freeland is working on a separate case concerning Nielsen, to which the unrelated charges are connected. Messages left at the office were not returned by press time, but Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks confirmed Nielsen was facing misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass from November, and driving on a suspended license from March.
Despite the humor involved in the burglary, Colburn said he was relieved a suspect is in custody and that the stolen money would be returned.
“It’s a couple hundred bucks,” Colburn said. “I’ll get that back so that makes me feel good.”
He added that while the circumstances make the event a bit humorous, the loss might have been much greater if not for a recent policy shift to never leave cash in the restaurant overnight. It was enacted only recently and as a precautionary measure following the rash of burglaries at prominent South Whidbey businesses and organizations this year.
Some of those hit include: South Whidbey Senior Center in Bayview, January; Eagles Aerie in Freeland, February and July; Freeland Cafe in Freeland, July; and Cozy’s Roadhouse in Clinton, July.
There was also a spur of activity early this week, after Nielsen was incarcerated. Langley Police Chief Dave Marks was up early Monday morning chasing would-be burglars through the city. He reported at a Langley City Council meeting that night that he started the chase at Mo’s Pub & Eatery around 3:30 a.m. and was tracking calls about alarms and break-in attempts all over town, finally ending at the Holmes Harbor Rod & Gun Club. Marks said the burglars failed to gain entry into any of the locations except for a work truck, and he warned people to lock their cars, homes and business doors at night.
“If you’ve got a vehicle, lock the doors and set the alarm,” he said.
Several of the July break-ins had phone lines snipped, which investigators say may have been attempts to circumvent alarm systems.
Colburn said news stories about the break-ins and alerts from the Island County Sheriff’s Office indicated a pattern and prompted him to take the extra step to safeguard his business. It proved a wise move.
“That probably saved us two or three grand,” Colburn said.
The burglar did ransack a back office, pulling out several desk drawers and strewing their contents across the floor. But, like the entire affair, Colburn took the mess in stride.
“This one hadn’t been cleaned out in 30 years so it was just as well,” said a smiling Colburn, while pointing to one of the desk drawers.
Nielsen is a South Whidbey resident, and a suspect in burglaries on the north and south ends. Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said this was the first major burglary that he was aware of since the string that occurred in July, and that it remains unclear whether they are linked.
“We don’t know,” Brown said. “They could be connected, they might not. We’re looking into it.”
Those burglaries were particularly “disturbing” due to the tactics used — cutting phone lines — and they remain under investigation. he said.