Cooper Landing museum robbed

Posted: Monday, July 19, 2004

Volunteers at the Cooper Landing Museum were shocked and saddened to find the profits from a weekend garage sale, donations and museum proceeds stolen in two burglaries earlier this month.

"What a bummer because we work so hard for our money here and a lot of people were helping with donations and so forth," said Mona Painter, president of the Cooper Landing Historical Society. "Then you feel violated, too. I've heard people feel that way when people break into their homes, and we feel that way, too. And you know, I look differently at people now, too, darn it."

About $2,000 in cash and checks was taken in two separate incidents, Painter said. The first theft apparently happened sometime during the evening of July 9 or early morning of July 10. The museum's volunteers held a fund-raising garage sale that weekend and the money, which was kept in an unlocked metal cash box, was noticed missing at 10 a.m. July 10.

But at that point no one realized the money was stolen, Painter said. She assumed the cash had been given out as change and another volunteer working a shift at the sale assumed it had been used by the treasurer to pay bills.

It wasn't until Painter and the other volunteer got together that evening that they realized the money had been stolen.

The garage sale continued July 11 and the museum was open for normal operations July 12. The Cooper Landing Senior Citizens Corp. Inc., which shares office space in the museum, had a meeting there the evening of July 12 and members checked to make sure the cash box was undisturbed before leaving at 9 p.m. The museum was closed Tuesday and when a volunteer came in Wednesday morning, the cash box was gone. Nothing else was missing or disturbed, Painter said.

The museum site, which opened to visitors in the spring of 2003, consists of four buildings along the shore of the Kenai River in Cooper Landing. The museum's displays and office space used by the historical society and seniors' organization is housed in a one-room schoolhouse that had been used from 1955 through 2000. The building had locks on the door knobs, so at first the theory was that the thefts were done by someone with access to a key.

"We didn't think our doors were vulnerable," Painter said.

Cooper Landing resident Glen Flothe, a retired Alaska State Trooper, was asked to inspect the building for signs of a break-in and found fresh scratches on one of the door locks, according to Painter. Flothe said it would have been possible for someone to pick the locks and recommended the locks be upgraded.

"Until they do that, someone else could come along and do the same thing," he said.

Cooper Landing resident and historical society member David Rhode offered to make the security improvements so the building would be protected from lock-picking attempts. Volunteers also are instituting new policies about money storage, Painter said.

Securing the building doesn't help recover the lost money, however.

The museum's only sources of funding are from donations, museum operations and fund-raisers like the garage sale. Painter said the museum does have a little money in the bank to pay the bills, but the theft means some planned maintenance projects will have to be scrapped.

"We won't be able to do anything extra now," she said. "We will need to be careful because bills are higher in the winter."

Trooper Kurt Walgenbach out of Seward said there are no suspects in the thefts. He said he needs to interview the volunteers who work in the building first and continue the investigation from there.

Painter said volunteers have been looking along the highway to see if the cash box had been tossed, but nothing has turned up.

Serious crime is unusual in the small town of about 500 on the shores of Kenai Lake and the headwaters of the Kenai River. Reports of stolen fishing gear during the summer is the most typical form of theft, Walgenbach said. But the town's population can practically double during the summer season with tourists and summer workers.

"I would hate to think it was somebody who's a full-time resident," Painter said. "I hate to put a label on it but people keep saying it could be a summer worker. There's so many of them in the summer."

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