The Boulevard Is a Vulnerable Target, Business Owners Want More Police Presence
by Joel Sappell and Laura Brady-Allen
UPDATE: May 29, 2019, 6:25 p.m.
Three men arrested for a one-night spree of burglaries on Colorado Blvd. in Eagle Rock and Pasadena on Jan. 5 pleaded no contest to the charges on May 29, according to Ricardo Santiago, a public information officer in the County DA’s office. Juan Manuel Morales, 20, was sentenced to 16 months in county jail consecutive to a sentence of three years in county jail. Kiyonte Levell Sowell, 18, was sentenced to five years formal probation plus one year in county jail followed by four years under mandatory supervision. Xavier King, 20, was sentenced to one year in county jail followed by four years under mandatory supervision.
Doris Hess is thrilled to be joining Eagle Rock’s thriving food scene. This spring, she and her husband will open an ambitious restaurant on Colorado Boulevard showcasing their craft spirits and comfort-style food.
But a last-minute problem, Hess says, has them rattled: “Do we have to sleep at our location every night to protect our space?”
It’s a concern shared these days by many frustrated and unnerved entrepreneurs along Colorado – and with good reason.
Since 2016, at least 40 reported break-ins have occurred along a prime, one-mile stretch of Colorado from Eagle Rock Boulevard to Eagle Vista Drive, according to Los Angeles Police Department records. Some businesses have been hit multiple times. Shattered windows covered with plywood have become a familiar sight.
The records reveal that, despite ebbs and flows, the number of attempted and successful burglaries on Colorado since 2016 make it one of the area’s most victimized stretches, surpassing reported break-ins along commercial corridors with similar businesses and aspirations. Those include York Boulevard in Highland Park, Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village, Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park and Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz.
The Hess’ soon-to-open restaurant was targeted during construction in the early morning hours last November. Hess says would-be burglars apparently pried open a glass, garage-style door and then stacked an array of expensive tools near the entrance. They were about to load them into a pick-up when one of her construction workers “arrived in the nick of time” and scared them off.
“We’re not even open yet and this is happening to us,” Hess says. “We’re still excited about our place, but we’re also very worried.”
A one-night crime wave
Eagle Rock’s burglaries made news beyond the neighborhood grapevine on January 5, when five Colorado Boulevard restaurants were hit in a single night, putting police on the spot and merchants even more on edge.
The targets represented the Eagle Rock of old and new: Casa Bianca, Piencone, Eagle Rock Italian Bakery, Thai Coconut and Meea’s.
“Joblessness, the economy, desperate times. That’s the way we look at it,” says Andrea Martorana, who, with her brother Ned, owns Casa Bianca, an Eagle Rock institution started by their parents more than 60 years ago. She says their restaurant was broken into just six months earlier.
“This is the most we’ve been hit since my dad was still around,” says Martorana. “And he’s been gone since 1997.”
Police say Colorado Boulevard presents an easier target than similar corridors because of its unprotected glass storefronts, fast access to two freeways and sparse overnight traffic.
“It’s like a ghost town at night,” says the LAPD’s senior lead officer for Eagle Rock, Fernando Ochoa who has been encouraging businesses to beef up their security systems. The burglars, he says, range from sophisticated crews to lone transients.
Some Colorado Boulevard merchants have become so resigned to the break-ins that they now view them as “the cost of doing business,” in the words of Cindy’s restaurant owner Paul Rosenbluh. From experience, many have learned to keep their tills empty and visible to minimize losses.
Rosenbluh says burglars have smashed Cindy’s windows multiple times. Once, they used bolt-cutters to steal a safe locked to a shelf. Another time, while police were taking a burglary report from him, an alarm went off at another restaurant, Rosenbluh says. The officers took the call, caught a suspect and, in the process, recovered Rosenbluh’s cash drawer, in which he’d left only some small change.
“They got lucky,” he says of the officers.
It took more than luck for authorities to find the suspects in January’s one-night surge.
On January 24, the Pasadena Police Department announced that a collaboration between its officers, the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had led to the arrest and charging of two men—ages 18 and 19—in connection with a string of commercial burglaries, including the recent five in Eagle Rock. A third suspect was still being sought.
Business owners say they’re relieved that quick action was taken in the highly publicized burglaries. But they worry that when the headlines fade, so too will the police attention. That’s what happened, they say, when another one-night rash of burglaries hit Colorado Boulevard in late 2016.
“You’re on an island here,” Eagle Rock restaurateur Corey Wilton quoted one police officer as saying during a 2016 meeting of uneasy business owners. “You’re kind of on your own. We just don’t have the resources.”
More restaurants, more challenges
Wilton and his wife, Michelle, have a lot at stake. They own two Colorado Boulevard restaurants—Four Café and Piencone—with a third, Penny Oven, scheduled to open soon in a building they’ll share with the Hesses’ new restaurant.
Wilton says he’s had to replace the back door of Four Café twice after burglars unsuccessfully tried to “crowbar it.” Piencone, meanwhile, not only got burglarized during the recent overnight crime spree but also was targeted five days earlier by a different suspect, security camera footage shows.
After smashing a window and finding the register empty, the burglar—dressed in scrubs from head to toe—“was in, out and gone within 45 seconds,” Wilton says. “The guy totally knew what he was doing.” It was a different story for the burglar in the second pre-dawn intrusion, Wilton says.
Piencone’s surveillance footage—which was broadcast on local TV stations—captures the suspect smashing the glass front door and rifling an empty cash register. He then heads upstairs to an employee lounge, where he discovers a small, locked safe. But he gets trapped in the room when a key-coded door locks behind him. Panicked, he heaves the safe through a second-floor window and then leaps out himself.
Neighbors reported hearing a moaning man, who left blood at the scene.
Wilton says the suspect got away with about $1,500. But like other burglarized merchants on Colorado, Wilton’s losses go beyond any stolen cash. He’ll also end up footing a hefty bill for repairs— a $2,500 insurance deductible for damages estimated at $5,500.
Wilton says he worries about the potential long-term impact of all this on Eagle Rock’s reputation and business climate.
“When customers see there are a lot of break-ins, they might say, ‘What’s going on over there? I’m not going to take my kids there. I thought this was a family neighborhood. What’s up?’ ”
“People all over the country have had it way worse than us,” Wilton says of communities ravaged by fires and floods. “This is a pretty small problem by comparison, but it needs to be addressed. If LAPD doesn’t have the manpower or isn’t able to give the support we need, then we should try and figure out something for ourselves.”
Finding a silver lining at Found
The worried parents of Found Coffee owner Annie Choi offered their daughter a plan of action after her popular business was broken into three times in two years.
They volunteered to “stake out the shop.”
“I’m like, no, it’s OK, we’re fine,” Choi says with a laugh.
The truth is she’s not entirely fine. Choi says she’s “surprised, shocked and angry” that her first solo business has been victimized so often in a neighborhood that, for the most part, is peaceful.
“It really makes my heart hurt because it’s not like we have that much cash,” says Choi, who has upgraded her security and now keeps no money overnight after losing more than $500 in the first break-in. Still, she says she worries about the safety of her female baristas and has instructed them to make sure there are always two of them present at closing time.
“What’s really wonderful about this community is that it has rallied behind us every single time,” she says. In fact, when Choi’s insurance carrier wouldn’t cover a second claim in 2017 for her shattered door, the Christian Assembly on Colorado Boulevard stepped up. The church, whose members are regulars at Found, paid more than $1,000 from a community fund to have the door replaced.
“I’m so thankful for that,” Choi says.
Choi was less charitable about the LAPD. She and other business owners say officers often seem unmoved by their plight, appearing to not fully appreciate the economic and emotional impact of the repeated burglaries. The business owners, she says, are simply told that property crimes must necessarily take a back seat to violent offenses at a time when police resources are tight.
“After each break-in, I had detectives come in and say we’re working on the case. They only came once and they never followed up again,” Choi says. “I just want them to say something and be more concerned about the small businesses. We pump money into this economy. All the businesses that got struck are all very vital to the Eagle Rock community.”
Some Eagle Rock residents can’t help but wonder whether the lack of a higher police presence on Colorado gave one brazen crew a sense of ease after they broke into the now-closed Camilo’s California Bistro on Christmas night in 2016.
Before leaving with cash, checks and an iPad, the burglars reportedly smoked some pot and dined on the restaurant’s food.
The captain responds
Captain Arturo Sandoval of the LAPD Northeast Division says he’s sorry that some Eagle Rock business owners feel under-served by a department that’s committed to their protection.
“If they feel that way, that’s my fault,” the captain said in a recent interview with the Boulevard Sentinel. He promised to share the community perceptions with his officers.
Sandoval said he could not specifically address the break-ins on Colorado because he has not seen a tally or analysis of commercial burglary statistics. He did say that burglary overall – commercial plus residential – was down in Eagle Rock between 2017 and 2018.
Beyond the recent spree, Sandoval said, he’s not aware of any spike in serial burglary activity on the boulevard that would warrant an intensified police effort.
Sandoval also said that, “based on knowledge off the top of our heads,” he doesn’t think Colorado Boulevard has fared worse since 2016 than other commercial strips—despite detailed department data on the Los Angeles Times’ “Mapping L.A.” project that suggest otherwise.
He called the Colorado burglaries more of a “constant problem” than an escalating one.
“There’s times when there’s five in a night, unfortunately. But there are also several nights or weeks when nothing occurs as well, which is what you would hope for,” said Sandoval.
Sandoval said he would ask departmental statisticians to examine commercial burglaries along Colorado and elsewhere in the division so he can provide more definitive, less anecdotal, answers.
Whatever the outcome of that review, Sandoval said, business owners must provide better security for themselves by “hardening the target” through surveillance cameras, lighting and other measures—especially at a time when burglars often return to the streets after spending little, if any, time behind bars.
He noted that merchants along some city thoroughfares have joined together to hire private security firms through the creation of business improvement districts to heighten enforcement visibility. Although that idea is gaining favor among some Colorado Boulevard business owners, it is dismissed by others who say they can’t afford the extra cost.
Sandoval said that even with the recent addition of more than a half-dozen new officers, “unfortunatley, we don’t have the ability to keep a patrol unit or a foot beat out there twenty four-seven.”
Onward into uncertainty
Doris Hess says she and her husband, James Hess, are still “100 percent in.” They’ve named their soon-to-debut restaurant “Relentless” as a nod to James’ love of extreme sports and the couple’s determination to get the glass-fronted place off the ground.
She says they’ve come to accept the burglary issue as one more stressful hurdle among many they’ve faced during the permitting and construction process. Recently, they decided to invest thousands of unanticipated dollars to strengthen their security system because “I’ve heard we have to fend for ourselves.”
“It’s going to be like Fort Knox over there,” says Hess, who also runs a popular brewery in Temecula with James.
The only thing that’s easing their anxiety, she says, is that they’re banking their future on Eagle Rock.
“We have great people surrounding us,” she says. “We’re just hoping that, with the support of the community and helping each other out, it will get better.”
Joel Sappell, a former reporter and editor for the L.A. Times, lives in Eagle Rock. Laura Brady-Allen covers crime for the Boulevard Sentinel.
The Hit Parade
The following list was compiled by the Boulevard Sentinel from interviews with Colorado Boulevard merchants and social media postings. We independently verified more than 30 attempted and successful burglaries since 2016 on the mile-long stretch from Eagle Rock Boulevard to Eagle Vista Drive. LAPD data on the Los Angeles Times Mapping L.A. site show 40 burglaries along that stretch during that time, but we could not confirm all of them because the police information does not list business names or specific addresses. – Laura Brady-Allen
- All About Poke (two)
- Ancient Thai Massage
- Back Benders
- Blue Hen (three)
- Camilo’s California Bistro
- Casa Bianca (two)
- Cindy’s (multiple but could not confirm exact number)
- Craft Beer
- Eagle Rock Italian Bakery
- Found Coffee (three)
- Little Beast
- Malbec Market
- Meridian Acupuncture
- My Vegan
- Peekaboo Playland
- Photographer’s office above Swork
- Piencone (two)
- Relentless Brewing and Spirits*
- Rock Dog and Cat (two)
- Thai Coconut