By Laurelle Walsh
Criminal activity in Winthrop has been higher than normal since Jan. 1, a fact which interim marshal Ken Bajema attributes partly to his being the town’s only police officer.
“When there’s a lack of police presence, property crime goes up,” Bajema said. “It’s a known deterrent when people see patrol cars in the neighborhood and know that police can get to an incident quickly.”
Bajema has been Winthrop’s sole police officer since the resignation of Seth Carlson on Dec. 29, just two weeks after former Marshal David Dahlstrom quit.
Interim marshal Bajema has responded to 42 calls since Jan. 1, including three felony incidents, he said. “That’s not typical for this time of year,” he said.
Three notable burglaries at Winthrop businesses in the past three months are under investigation.
The first was the break-in and theft of about $3,000 in cash from Lost River Winery’s tasting room around midnight on Jan. 9. The building was entered after somebody broke a window panel on the winery’s front door, and then apparently picked the lock on a cash drawer.
The crime is still under investigation, with good evidence gathered from shoe and tire impressions at the scene, according to Bajema. “A lot of the time you’ll catch somebody doing something later and then connect it to a previous incident,” he said.
Video evidence and statements from witnesses led to the arrest of one suspect in the break-in and attempted theft of an automated teller machine (ATM) at Winthrop Motors in the early hours of Feb. 17.
Around 3 a.m., two hooded individuals smashed the window of the service station’s front door, entered the building and attempted to remove the ATM, Bajema said.
Video footage shows the perpetrators pulling up between the fuel pumps and the building in a black Nissan Pathfinder, getting out and looking into the windows of the store. They did this several times over two hours before the break-in, Bajema said.
Video shows the burglars in the store for less than 10 seconds. “Nothing else was taken,” Bajema added.
Bajema arrested a man in Winthrop on March 15 in connection with the Winthrop Motors break-in. He described the man as “an out-of-towner who has been staying in the area and came back to town.” The arrested man is also the owner of the vehicle in the surveillance video, Bajema said.
Because the Okanogan County Jail was full on the day of the arrest, the man was released and not charged with a crime, Bajema said. “He has a criminal summons to appear in court — if he doesn’t appear, there is a felony warrant out for his arrest,” Bajema said.
Bajema said the other suspect in the Winthrop Motors incident may also be connected with an attempted burglary in the Horizon Flats neighborhood nine days ago.
At around 3 a.m. on March 17, a silent alarm was triggered from the office of North Valley Lumber. Someone broke in to the building and tried unsuccessfully to remove a safe that was bolted to the floor. “I have very good evidence from the lumber yard to send to the Spokane Crime Lab,” Bajema said.
“It was the same kind of smash-and-grab burglary,” said Bajema. Although the man arrested in connection with the Winthrop Motors incident was not in the area at the time of the North Valley Lumber burglary, Bajema suspects his accomplice may have been involved in both incidents.
“If you’re going to break in to places around here, you’re going to get caught,” Bajema said. “We don’t have a lot of crime here, but our solve rate is high. We have a lot of time to work on investigations.”
Bajema said that many businesses have video surveillance cameras in Winthrop, and he hopes that more will consider installing them. “They are an excellent deterrent … and if you use it once it pays for itself,” he said. “You don’t know how often people see a camera and then change their mind.”
In addition, video footage collected during a crime can be used to prosecute criminals, Bajema said.
Last week Winthrop added the policing services of reserve officer Bryan Alexander, resident ranger at Pearrygin Lake State Park. Alexander is a specially commissioned Washington peace officer, and works independently for the towns of Winthrop and Twisp. He will be covering shifts “when wanted or needed,” said Bajema.
Bajema credits Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow for his assistance during this time of reduced police coverage in Winthrop, and for “offering his expertise and investigation equipment.”
The process of hiring a new marshal and deputy officer is underway, but “it is taking longer than I had hoped,” said Winthrop Mayor Sue Langdalen on Monday (March 24).
The town’s Civil Service Commission has recommended two applicants for the job of town marshal, who Langdalen interviewed by telephone. “We have two great candidates,” Langdalen said. “We are now waiting for paperwork to be sent to us from each individual.”
“This is not an easy process, but I just want it to be the right fit for the town,” Langdalen said.
In the meantime, Bajema said he hopes “people will think about bolstering security and look out for their neighbors. I like to think of Twisp and Winthrop as two big Crime Watch communities.”