By ALEX KUPRIN
In the early hours of Sept. 4, 2009, something happened that has changed my life and my outlook. That night, our pawn shop was broken into and burglarized.
Yes, I’ve heard stories of hold-ups and burglaries before, but they never actually impressed me long enough to get me to prepare. Part of the reason is that we’ve been at my location so long without any incident that we got very comfortable and relaxed, until what pretty much is inevitable, happened.
This event jolted our senses and opened our eyes. It made us realize that we were fools who knew virtually nothing about security or prevention. This was an eye opener, and I’d like to share it with you.
Our shop is located inside a typical L-shaped strip mall, with a typical California drywall and wood construction. To the left of us was an empty store, once a clothing shop. To the right is an insurance office, and behind is a cinderblock storage facility.
The burglary was executed like clockwork, with black ops-style precision and planning. Whoever did this must’ve studied our store for weeks, if not months.
On the eve of the burglary, with the clothing store was vacated, there was no alarm armed at that location. The burglars entered the complex at night, through the roof of our building, first breaching the insurance office and disabling its alarm. They proceeded to crawl into our pawn shop through the ceiling space (which afforded about 3 feet of clearance), and finally disabled our alarm.
All in all, there were three units next to each other with disabled alarms, so the culprits had all the liberty in the world to do their deed.
Immediately after entry, they must have cut open the locks on the front door and wheeled in a torch set. They positioned it in front of the safe, covered all the kindling around it (guitars, amplifiers) with a blanket, and proceeded to torch it right where the dial is. Eventually the lock melted and the bottom bolt dropped, permanently locking the safe.
The only way to the contents now was a 6-inch-wide hole where the dial used to be. They used both our 5-gallon water jugs to cool the hole, and probably some kind of sleeve to reach in and grab as much jewelry as they could.
They then ripped out our DVR system, and escaped through the front door.
I got to the store at about 9:55, and while approaching I didn’t notice anything unusual, as the outer glass door was closed. Only when I was a few feet away, past the sun’s glare, did I notice that the metal door was wide open, with its lock missing and a huge mess visible inside the store.
As I walked in, I was overtaken by a powerful odor of molten steel, burnt ceramics and burnt carpet. I approached the safe to find the hole still simmering and too hot to touch. At the rear of the store, pieces of broken ceiling tiles were strewn around, showing the burglars’ path.
My alarm box was completely torn off the wall and smashed; it never sent a signal out. Whoever did this knew how to disable these things efficiently.
Eventually I collected myself and dialed 911 to report the break-in. I expected immediate response, like you’d see on TV, but the operator said that since it’s “only a burglary” and “nobody’s getting shot,” the call was not a priority, and I’d have to wait a while for a squad car to show up.
I called my alarm company to demand answers, and eventually their tech showed up and shrugged. The police came at half past noon, started to take pictures, dusted for fingerprints, and finally made their one-page report.
Target was Jewelry
The burglars took off with about 80 percent of the contents of the safe, which included all our retail jewelry; 20 percent of our customers’ jewelry that was nearing the end of the loan period; about $5,000 cash, and all the wristwatches in pawn.
Most of the remaining jewelry was either melted beyond recognition or fused to the plastic trays, and was only salvageable for the gold weight. Most of the watches were gone — only two or three remained, but they too were badly damaged by the heat.
The burglars didn’t take anything else, as they came only for the gold. There were two laptop computers missing from the display in the front, but it’s most likely that someone else stole them long after the burglars left. The total value of the jewelry exceeded $100,000 — a loss we won’t recoup quickly.
As weeks passed, I called the police department several times to ask for a progress report. It always took me a long time to get through to the detectives, and when I finally did, I always had to remind them who I am and give them my report number.
Of course, there were never any leads or suspects or any hope to recover the jewelry. Clearly this is just another case that was put on the bottom of a huge pile in some dusty office that no one ever frequents.
In the months that followed, several customers whose jewelry was lost argued with us and demanded reparations. Two of them filed small claims suits and eventually I was served.
The back of the loan ticket says the pawnbroker does not insure pawned property for the benefit of the borrower, and that even if the pawnbroker is proven negligent, at no time would any dispute settlement exceed, AS LIQUIDATED DAMGES, 50 percent of the amount loaned. The law was on our side; after all, we don’t run a storage facility or a fortress, nor did we advertise our business as such.
The biggest lesson I learned is that there can never be too much security, or too costly security equipment for a pawn shop. I have installed an additional alarm system from a different company, upgraded old equipment with a cell back-up, installed another local DVR, and added a remote one via Internet.
We also installed bars and an additional door that split the store in half to make it look more imposing and more fortified. I even installed an app that allows me to view the inside of our store from my iPhone.
I salvaged the breached safe and bought two additional ones, in an effort to slow down any future burglars. Right now the interior of the store looks more intimidating and is better equipped than before.
This is something I should have done years ago.
Ourselves to Blame
There’s really no one to blame but ourselves for what happened. It was our own arrogant comfort that led to this.
Clearly, whoever did this knew more about the store than we did. We never bothered to research alarm companies or any other security options available to us.
In 2009, we had an aging alarm system installed in the early 90s, without a cellular backup, to protect almost a half-million dollars in jewelry. I always hung up on alarm companies calling me soliciting their services. I treated the security of my livelihood with a closed mind.
The outcome of this burglary could have been much worse. They could have breached the main safe, which was hidden, or they could have set fire to the premises.
I am no longer bitter about this. In fact, I consider myself lucky. This is a lesson that had to be learned in a hard way, but I learned it nonetheless.
I honestly hope that if you’re like I was, you’re on the phone now in talks to beef up your security. No alarm system is too expensive for a pawn shop; in fact, you should have two systems installed from different providers, in case one fails.
The burglars may well come from the roof, so have motion sensors installed in every vulnerable spot. Beware of adjacent vacancies; ask the landlord if the alarm can be turned on after tenants vacate.
Install a local DVR system and a remote one and post signs accordingly. Make the inside of your store look secure and unfriendly to criminals. Don’t get too comfortable, because anything may happen — even to you!