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CHS hit by thieves; torch cuts safe open

For the second year in a row, high school hit at spring break

For the second year in a row -- but in an even more brazen foray this time -- Columbia High School was targeted by thieves during the school's spring break period.

Sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, thieves broke multiple windows at the school to gain access to classrooms, the library, the metal shop, and the high school's main office.

In the most unusual aspect of the crime, those involved wheeled an acetylene torch -- taken from the metal shop -- to the CHS office, whereupon they used the torch to cut the hinges from the school's safe and remove its door.

"They broke in there first to get the torch, then rolled it down here," explained CHS Principal Tim McGlothlin.

"The smell of acetylene was still pretty strong in the office on Sunday," added Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace.

Cash, checks, and even blank diplomas were taken from the safe.

"There was minimal value. We don't keep cash on site. Some checks were stolen, but not much cash to speak of," McGlothlin said. "This is a bizarre break-in."

According to McGlothlin, laptop computers, cameras, and projectors were also taken. McGlothlin added that nothing in the school was vandalized or destroyed.

The crime was discovered just before noon on Sunday.

"They were in the building for a long period of time, and they went into each of the buildings," McGlothlin said. "It must have been an organized group. They knew what they were looking for. I don't think a couple of kids could have done this. That safe is huge. Its door is five feet tall and weighs 300 pounds, and the hinges are half an inch thick."

As of Tuesday morning, school officials were not yet sure of the full list of items that were stolen.

"We're not sure what is missing until the complete inventory is done," explained Superintendent Dale Palmer. "They were in virtually every classroom. It's going to be quite a haul."

KCSO Deputy Ken MacDonald said some helpful evidence had been recovered at the scene.

"The school staff was careful to preserve the scene and evidence was later recovered by the Sheriff's Office," MacDonald said. "The evidence will be processed and the State Crime Lab may be called upon for more detailed analysis."

On April 7 last year, also during spring break, classrooms at the high school were broken in to. Televisions, VCRs, computers, a cell phone, digital cameras, global positioning systems, and a camcorder were stolen, with a value of approximately $5,000.

On Jan. 8, 2004, a CHS classroom was broken in to, with laptop computers and a photo-negative scanner stolen. The equipment was valued at about $11,000.

Mace said the perpetrators in this year's break-in appeared to be focused primarily on cash.

"It looked like they were rifling cabinets for petty cash. They were going directly after cash," Mace explained.

In a possibly related crime on the morning of April 1, the clubhouse at the Husum Hills Golf Course was the target of thieves.

"They pried open the cash drawer where we keep our daily receipts and took cash and checks," said Don Struck, owner of the golf course. "There was lots of merchandise they could have snagged, but they didn't disturb any of it."

In the golf course break-in, the thieves used a glass cutter to cut out a portion of glass on a sliding window, then removed a board that held the window shut.

Struck said KCSO inspectors dusted for fingerprints, but none were found.

"It's obvious they were wearing gloves," Struck said.

McGlothlin said the incident at CHS was a blow to the school's mission.

"It sets us back," McGlothlin said. "It's very unfortunate. It's a burden on our already overtaxed maintenance department and a burden on our overtaxed police department. But we'll deal with it and move forward."

Sheriff Mace pointed out that Columbia High School is the only high school in the county not protected by some type of an alarm system.

"Even the high school in Klickitat is alarmed," Mace explained. "And even Wishram has motion lights."

Mace urged the school to take steps to protect itself in the future.

"Maybe the school will look at cameras or an alarm system," Mace said. "I know budgets are tight, but they can't keep having this happen. It's such a dark spot up there, and it's protected from the roadway."

In past incidents, school officials have said a security system would be "too expensive" to install, but Palmer agreed the school district now needs to explore ways to provide better security.

"I think it definitely needs to be taken to the School Board," Palmer said. "It might be time to have an alarm system. We're strapped for money, but it needs to be an agenda item."

Mace said his office is setting up a reward for information that corroborates evidence found at the scene and helps leads investigators to an arrest.

"We feel there is a relationship between this and other area burglaries based off evidence so far recovered," Mace said.

Mace requested that anyone with information on the rash of burglaries call KCSO in Goldendale at (509) 773-4545.


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