When a Maya Mexican Restaurant employee arrived at the business on the morning of June 19, he immediately saw the smashed front door and, after looking around the restaurant, noticed the safe was missing.

The employee called Teresa and Manuel Paredes, third-generation owners of the restaurant, who dropped what they were doing and rushed to the business located near downtown in the 100 block of South Lincoln Street.

The couple reviewed the surveillance camera footage and watched the thief ransack the restaurant searching for the safe — a heavy, commercial-brand object not meant to be easily removed — which he found and manually removed himself, according to Teresa Paredes.

“The guy had super human strength, it was insane,” she said. “The crazy thing is that he didn’t take the beer or anything.”

Between June 19 and July 1, the restaurant experienced three break-ins by the same individual, allegedly 26-year-old Hermes Rodriguez, of Santa Maria. Rodriguez was ultimately arrested in Guadalupe July 16 on suspicion of violating a domestic violence restraining order, according to records.

The restaurant is not alone. Santa Maria has experienced an uptick in resident and commercial burglaries, which include several places along the Main Street corridor that were broken into, according to Santa Maria Police Lt. Terry Flaa, who heads the department’s detective bureau.

Flaa, along with several city officials including District 3 City Councilwoman Gloria Soto and Police Chief Marc Schneider, organized a meeting at police department headquarters on Tuesday, inviting affected business owners and their families, including the Paredes and Scott Clark, owner of Main Street Cycles in Santa Maria.

At the meeting, Flaa provided information about how the burglaries are occurring and offered some possible explanations.

Without providing exact numbers, Flaa estimated 150 burglaries have occurred so far in 2021. He was not able to immediately provide 2020 data, although Santa Maria had 174 burglaries in 2019, a dip from 270 in 2018, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports statistics.

Of the roughly 150 burglaries, approximately 30 people were arrested in connection to those crimes, many of them repeat offenders, according to Flaa. Some incidents involve transients who are merely passing through and looking for opportunities, he added.

But Flaa said many of them, including those unsolved, indicate a level of criminal organization and may be connected to neighboring cities.

Methods of operation involve simple “smash-and-grab” techniques in which criminals break glass windows or doors and promptly steal times, while others indicate more sophistication.

Incidents included thieves breaking through rooftops and even cutting through walls, according to Flaa.

Flaa suspects some criminals are intentionally setting off alarms to test response times.

Items stolen include cash or anything that can be sold for cash. Those items also include weapons, ammunition, bicycles and even personal information for identity theft, which are sold to finance a variety of criminal activities such as gangs or drug consumption.

Some possible explanations included the COVID-19 pandemic and Emergency Rule 4, which sets $0 bail amounts for nearly all crimes, except for the most egregious, including violent crimes.

Additionally, Proposition 47, which passed in 2014 and recategorized some felonies into misdemeanors, and recent bail reform, were mentioned.

While many business owners vented their frustrations, Flaa offered some insight into the department’s investigative process, saying detectives pursue cases where evidence is abundant, but acknowledged some expectations haven’t been met.

“It’s not that we don’t care,” Flaa said. “The reality is that our patrol staff has to prioritize calls.”

He offered several practical tips, including securing safes to the floor; installing high-resolution cameras; silent and blaring, highly-audible alarms; break-resistant glass; clearing windows of any obstructions and keeping lights on in the back in order for police to see directly into the business.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Flaa said.

Clark suggested business owners band together and communicate with each other. Clark, Manuel Paredes and others, including officers from the Santa Maria Police community outreach team, urged the community to take a closer look at some of the propositions given to voters.

Proposition 47 was formally called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which Clark said was a misnomer.

“You have to really understand what’s being presented to you,” Clark said. “They really fluff this stuff.”

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