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FBI investigates string of school break-ins

8/17/2012

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

Authorities from two states and also the Federal Bureau of Investigation have combined efforts to investigate a string of school burglaries in northwest Kansas and southwest Nebraska.

"This is a cooperative effort between sheriff's offices, police departments, Kansas Highway Patrol, Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the FBI," a spokesperson for the Nebraska State Patrol said Thursday of the ongoing and active investigation. "There are many, many departments and agencies involved in this cooperative effort."

As many as 17 schools in the two states have been burglarized this summer, the Nebraska State Patrol spokesperson said.

"These are the ones we're looking at as possibly the same group of individuals," said Thomas Dow, Hayes County (Neb.) Sheriff, adding authorities "have a couple (suspects) we're looking at pretty hard."

The latest burglary in connection with the case was at Phillipsburg USD 325, where in the early morning hours of Aug. 9 individuals broke into the high school and stole approximately 150 iPads, 160 iPad chargers and 90 iPad cases. Phillips County Sheriff Paul Wisinger said the loss is estimated at approximately $75,000.

The large number of items stolen in Phillipsburg sets it apart from the other break-ins, which could prove to be helpful in the investigation.

"This isn't a normal burglary, where a couple items are stolen, then 10 days later they show up in a pawn shop in Hays," said the spokesperson for the Nebraska State Patrol. "This is a little different; it gives us a couple avenues to look at, approach from that angle."

Wisinger has been in contact with other Kansas sheriff's departments that also have had schools burglarized. There also was a meeting in McCook, Neb., where authorities from both states met to share information.

"We talked with Nebraska State Patrol and a couple other agencies," Wisinger said. "I think (the burglaries are) connected."

Golden Plains USD 316 was hit twice by burglars. The elementary school in Selden was broken into July 27, and Golden Plains High School in Rexford was burglarized Aug. 2. Among items stolen at Selden were a cellphone, a digital camera, a scanner, one iPod dock, one iPod sound deck, an Apple laptop, four iPads, a CD player and two older laptops. Estimated loss is $18,000, not counting the cost of replacing carpets and glass.

"It caused a lot of damage, because they broke the glass; our classroom doors had glass in them," said USD 316 Superintendent Mary Ellen Welshhon. "They broke the glass into those rooms, and it got in that carpet; we've had to replace all the carpet. That is major."

The estimated loss at the high school in Rexford is a little more than $12,000. Taken there were 15 iPads, 15 iPad Smart covers and three graphing calculators.

Welshhon said a BB gun was found outside the elementary school in Selden; she speculated the burglars brought it in case they needed to shoot out any surveillance cameras the school might have had.

"It's very, very frustrating," Welshhon said. "It really angers people, that someone would come in and take things and do damage like that.

"Just to see the destruction, besides the loss of the iPads," she added. "I'm just glad we weren't in school. You almost feel like you've been violated."

A burglary at Northern Valley High School in Almena also is considered to have a connection. On Aug. 8, two televisions, two camcorders, a laptop and a couple digital cameras were taken. Norton County Sheriff Troy Thomson said the loss is estimated at $3,500, not counting damages. He thinks the burglary is related to the others.

"I do believe that, yes," he said. "Everything we've seen so far is leading to that."

On July 31, Rawlins County High School in Atwood was burglarized. Taken were two digital cameras and two flat screen TVs.

Also on July 31, burglaries were attempted at two schools in Nebraska. In one, entry was not gained; in the other, the school was broken into but the burglars left after hearing an alarm go off.

The high school in Cambridge, Neb., was not so fortunate July 31. Including damages, Superintendent Robert Gregory estimated the loss at $50,000. He said among items stolen were seven iPads, five flat-screen TVs and numerous digital cameras.

Hayes Center High School in Hayes Center, Neb., was burglarized July 22, with 16 iPads four Apple laptops, two Apple TVs, two thinkpads and other computer-related tools stolen. The loss is approximately $10,000.

"People are wearing the same kind of outfits for disguises, they're taking the same kind of items," Dow said. "That's how we're thinking they might be related."

Welshhon is trying to remain positive after what happened at her school district.

"I always say something good comes out of everything bad," she said. "Hopefully, we'll have something great happen."