Burglars hit cleaners through rooftop vents

9 sites struck last month in Howard, Anne Arundel

December 01, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

At least nine dry cleaners have been burglarized over the past month in Howard and Anne Arundel counties by an intruder who climbs onto rooftops, slides down ventilation shafts and steals cash from registers, according to authorities.

Nearly one-third of the dry cleaners along U.S. 40 in Ellicott City - four of 14 - were burglarized from their rooftops last month using the method, according to police reports and business owners.

Since last month, five cleaners in Anne Arundel have been struck by the method; two others were burglarized in October, according to a police spokesman.

Authorities declined to speculate on why dry cleaners are being targeted, or whether they have developed any leads or suspects in the cases. Ventilation shafts at dry cleaners can be wide enough to fit an adult and typically provide direct access from a roof to the interior.

Pfc. David Proulx, a Howard police spokesman, said detectives are working with Baltimore, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties to investigate possible links between similar dry cleaner burglaries over the past several months.

"There are stark similarities between all of these, and they're being investigated as being done by possibly the same suspect or suspects," Proulx said.

Sgt. Shawn Urbas, an Anne Arundel County police spokesman, declined to release details about the burglaries or the affected businesses in that county.

In October, cleaners in Glenwood in Howard and Mount Airy in Carroll were struck, as well as two dry cleaners in western Anne Arundel and one in northwestern Baltimore County, authorities said.

The burglaries in Howard led police last month to contact nearly 40 dry cleaners in about half the county. A county police officer hand-delivered a letter to the dry cleaners that warned of the burglary method, and urged owners to take preventive measures, said Proulx.

Gary LaFree, a University of Maryland, College Park criminologist, said crime sprees are relatively uncommon. But criminals might stick with a familiar method, he said, if they find success with it.

"One of the things we know about crimes in general is that criminals tend not to be specialists," LaFree said.

Howard police described the burglary method in their Nov. 12 letter to dry cleaners so that owners could take precautions. According to the letter, someone is entering the businesses by climbing onto the roof, removing a ventilation shaft cover, bending fan blades and climbing down the exhaust system.

The four Ellicott City cleaners struck on U.S. 40 last month include: Regency Cleaners in the 8800 block Nov. 3; Normandy Dry Cleaners in the 8400 block between Nov. 6 and Nov. 8; Enchanted Cleaners in the 10000 block last weekend; and St. John's Cleaners in the 9000 block early Monday, according to police.

No money was stolen from Regency, according to that business' owner. A small safe containing an unspecified amount of cash was stolen from Enchanted, said Mark Lichaa, who runs the store with his father. A small amount of cash was taken from Normandy and St. John's cleaners, police said.

Steven Chang, owner of St. John's, said it was the first time in 10 years that his business had been burglarized. He said police responded after the burglar tripped an alarm.

Lichaa said he discovered the break-in at Enchanted on Monday, when he opened the store at 7 a.m.

"There were cash registers strewn all over the floor, the office was left open, the door handle broken," Lichaa said.

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