Connection or coincidence?
Burglary of local dentist office raises questions
The Western Dental Center office at Cohasset Road and East Avenue in north Chico was burglarized Sunday, Jan. 8. On the surface it doesn’t sound that unusual: A window is smashed with a sledgehammer on a day the business is closed; entrance is gained and a small safe containing some cash is taken.
But it turns out Chico’s was the 10th burglary of a Western Dental office in Northern California since Dec. 30. Company officials told Chico police that there had been nine breakins at its offices in Sacramento, Madera, Turlock and Fremont.
What’s more, the Chico job happened at about 1:30 in the afternoon along a heavily trafficked street in a bustling shopping strip and in a building that also houses a two restaurants and a coffee house, all of which were open at the time. About 150 yards to the south sits Panda Express, a restaurant whose drive-through window offers a direct view of Western Dental and the window that was smashed and entered in broad daylight.
This past weekend (Jan. 14-15) four more Western Dental offices were burglarized in the Bay Area, one in Oakland and three in Fremont. That’s 14 burglaries to the same dentistry chain in two weeks. Coincidence? Conspiracy? Inside job? The cops in the respective areas don’t know but are comparing evidence.
The Chico dental office was entered through a smashed-out window on the south side of the building. Chico police Sgt. Rob Merrifield said on the day following the crime that police were alerted to the site by an alarm.
“There were several neighboring businesses that were open at the time,” Merrifield said. “It did seem odd that nobody noticed anything given the fact that that is a pretty busy area. It just seems odd that we didn’t get any calls.”
He said the detectives’ office has been in touch with law officials in the other cities where the dental offices were hit.
“There were five in the Sacramento area and then Madera, Turlock and Fremont,” he said. “All were similar burglaries and all since Dec. 30. It seems like there is a good chance they are all related. Whether it’s the same person or maybe a group of people, it kind of seems unlikely that it was happening just as a coincidence.”
This week police released a surveillance video taken from inside the business. Merrifield said the suspect’s face was covered by a hooded sweatshirt and his hands were covered by its sleeves. The suspect uses a sledge hammer to smash out the window and bust loose the safe, which was bolted to the floor.
The four most recent burglaries were similar, said Chico police Det. Jose Lara. A window was smashed, a safe was taken and a sledgehammer was the suspected tool. In Sacramento the thieves also took TV monitors. While only one suspect was caught on video in Chico, at least two have been spotted taking part in the Sacramento jobs.
Lara noted Chico’s Western Dental Center office is in a high-profile location.
“It’s in there with Starbucks, Pizza Guys, Quizno’s Subs,” he said. “And then you’ve got the guy who waves the sign,” he said, referring to the Verizon Wireless sign-shaker who works the southwest corner of the East Avenue and Cohasset Road intersection. Lara cautioned that he wasn’t sure if the sign holder shakes it on Sundays.
This Tuesday (Jan. 17) at about noon, the Western Dental Center office was buzzing with employees behind desks and patients waiting in the reception area. The office manager said he had heard that the suspect may have once worked for a security agency, but that little more than that was known.
Over at the Panda Express, where the drive-through window looks directly toward the side of the Western Dental office that was used to gain entrance, an employee named Nick said neither he nor any of the other workers he’s talked to know anything about the incident. In fact, he was surprised to hear about it, as was the barista behind the counter at Starbucks, who said she did see a lot of police activity in the parking lot recently.
According to its website, Western Dental Centers has more than 200 offices and clinics in California and Arizona. A call to the main office in Orange was greeted by an operator who checked with the company’s media rep only to report, “We have no comment.” But she did say the caller was eligible for a free orthodontic exam to see if braces were needed.