Veterinary community rallies to combat burglaries

Thieves target flea, tick, heartworm products

September 25, 2015 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo by Erika Tookes
Signs like these appeared at veterinary clinics around Knoxville, Tennessee, in the face of serial burglaries.
The first Dr. Angela Snow heard about a rash of burglaries hitting veterinary hospitals around her practice near Knoxville, Tennessee, was when a fellow clinic owner asked, “Have you been robbed yet?”

Snow knew nothing of the crimes at the time but two months later, she’s learned quite a bit from personal experience.

Snow’s Clinton Highway Veterinary Hospital was struck by thieves on Aug. 15 and again five weeks later. The second break-in happened early Saturday; it proved a lucky break for investigators.

Knox County Sheriff’s Office investigators tailing a suspect saw a man with a crowbar in the clinic parking lot in the middle of the night, Snow told the VIN News Service. When officers pulled the suspect over a short time later, they found $24,000 worth of flea, tick and heartworm products in the man’s car, according to a sheriff’s office press release.

Officers arrested Timothy Gayton Ross, 42, of Knoxville, charging him with felony burglary and theft. Police said a second suspect in the case already was in custody on other charges. That suspect has not been identified publicly.

By the Knox County sheriff’s count, the Sept. 19 break-in was the 36th in a string of veterinary clinic burglaries since March in a region spanning three states — Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia — involving the theft of pet medications and therapeutics worth about $700,000. Members of the veterinary community say the break-ins started earlier in the year, so the tally is probably higher. Because the crimes took place in multiple law-enforcement jurisdictions, they did not immediately attract notice as being related.

Photo courtesy of Erika Tookes
Merial sales representative Erika Tookes was the first to see a pattern in burglaries of veterinary clinics in three southern states.
Area veterinarians credit Erika Tookes, a senior sales development representative for Merial, with connecting the dots and sounding the alarm.

Tookes “got wind of the connection long before any of us knew it was happening,” said Dr. Julianne Delzer, president of the Knoxville Veterinary Medical Association. “She was majorly instrumental in helping get the word out.”

Gregarious and enthusiastic in a telephone interview, Tookes deflected the credit, saying many people and organizations played a part in drawing attention to the problem. She acknowledged that she persevered with authorities. “I wasn’t going to let it die down, and I wasn’t going to let them not talk to each other,” she said.

“I started an email chain in April, when I included everybody — all veterinarians who wanted to be included. Every time something occurred, I’d give an update to this mass email chain, and to every detective in the jurisdictions,” Tookes said. “It’s basic! Communicate!”

Tookes said she first became aware in January that something was up when she received a telephone call from Dr. George Brown at Farragut Animal Clinic in Knoxville. “I have some good news and some bad news,” she recalled him saying. “The good news is, your products are in high demand because I’ve been robbed and that’s all they took. The bad news is that I have been burglarized.”

The flea-and-tick killer Frontline and the heartworm preventive Heartgard, both made by Tookes’ employer Merial, were prominent among the parasiticides the burglars targeted.

For the most part, the thieves did not take narcotics or other controlled substances, drugs that presumably are more desirable to burglars. But parasiticides are valuable, as well, and perhaps easier to sell, noted Delzer. “I gather these guys knew these products are expensive and can probably move them quickly,” she speculated.

Tookes’ burglary-update emails show thieves struck along a 300-mile stretch of Interstate 75, reaching as far north as Lexington, Kentucky, and as far south as Dalton, Georgia. The majority of cases occurred in Tennessee.

Security pointers

  • Have an alarm system with cameras and good exterior lighting. Have the police check the premises when you get the dreaded call at 1 a.m., and don't assume it is just an escape-artist boarder.
  • The parasite preventives obviously have some kind of street/gray-market value so don't make them easy to steal — at least, don't have the stock in plain sight.
  • Keep a good, up-to-date inventory so you can accurately determine what was lost if it happens.
  • Get the word out. Inform other practices in the area if you have a break-in because together, using media outlets, maybe the authorities will treat it as an actual solvable crime and not just a “kid looking for something to sell for drugs.”
  • If possible, avoid having employees on the premises alone, especially after hours.
  • Install security cameras not just near the cash register but by entrances and exits. Light the areas so cameras can capture decent images.
  • Maintain and periodically test alarm systems.
  • Stamp inventory with your clinic’s name to make it harder to sell and easier to identify if recovered.

Tookes’ sales territory is Knoxville but she has contacts around the region, she said, owing to various jobs she’s held over the years in the animal health arena.

Several practices were hit more than once; some three, even four times. Tookes estimates the number of incidents is more than 40.

“I’m just so sickened by this (crime). I absolutely adore all my customers,” Tookes said. “Our lives have been intertwined for many years. They’re near and dear to me; they’re my friends.”

As summer wore on and the break-ins continued, Tookes brainstormed with veterinarians about what more could be done. Dr. Thyra Walker, a Knoxville clinic owner who followed developments closely and shared them on an electronic message board of the Veterinary Information Network, came up with the idea of offering a reward.

Tookes shopped the idea around, and before long, donations came in from individual veterinary clinics — some of them burglary victims and some not — as well as the Knoxville VMA and the Tennessee VMA, collectively providing for a $10,000 reward.

David Smallwood, practice manager of Hardin Valley Animal Hospital in Knoxville, which was burglarized three times between May and August, said the efforts to draw media and law-enforcement attention made a difference.

“Before the publicity, I can say that even when I responded to the third break-in, the sheriff did not know about the 20-plus break-ins that had already occurred,” Smallwood said.

The burglars’ modus operandi was to cut outside phone lines to silence alarm systems, pry open a rear door, grab parasiticides on easily accessible shelves and get out quickly.

Surveillance video of a burglary in Seymour, Tennessee, posted by a local news outlet in April shows two male figures leaving with boxes and a filled plastic garbage bag.

At Clinton Highway Veterinary Hospital, Snow said the back-to-back burglaries were the first she’d experienced in 26 years in her location in Powell, northwest of Knoxville. The building, which she rents, for years had a sturdy metal back door. Occasionally, she’d see pry marks, scrape marks and dents on the door suggestive of an attempted break-in, but none of the attempts was successful.

As Snow understands it, the thieves were careful and efficient. “They wore gloves, so they didn’t leave fingerprints,” she said. “And they were fast. Once they gained entrance, they went straight up front, swished the stuff in a garbage bag — they weren’t in here for five minutes.”

Burglars also made off both times with $45 in petty cash from the till, but they left refrigerated drugs and vaccines and controlled drugs secured in a safe, Snow said.

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office declined to discuss to whom the thieves may have been selling the stolen goods, saying that the investigation is ongoing. Snow said she hopes authorities will identify and pursue the buyer. Otherwise, she said, “They’ll [just] put two more thugs on the street” to take the place of the arrested suspects.

The Knoxville-area burglary string wasn’t the first time veterinary clinics were targeted for pet parasiticides. Dr. Margaret Cory reported on a VIN message board that her clinic in Minnesota was hit in similar fashion in 2008. Someone broke through the back door with a crowbar and made off with Frontline and Heartgard.

That case appeared to be an inside job, because the clinic office manager didn’t return to work the next day, nor ever again, Cory added in an interview, although the suspicion was never proven. Cory said a couple of other clinics also were burglarized, according to police.

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