Stealing change … with stealth?

by Richard Thomas

Photo by Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons

Note to landlords: You know those mini-laundromats in your apartment buildings? You might want to keep closer tabs on those things. 

Thefts from such machines is quickly discovered when the burglars break them open, leaving clear damage. But in the Duluth area, at least one relatively skilled burglar allegedly has been picking the locks and taking out the coins unnoticed.

“Some landlords don’t even know it because they don’t pay attention,” one Duluth property owner told the Reader. 

The landlord discovered the theft in August 2017 when he went to collect the money and found the keys to the machines, which had been stored in a locked area of the laundry room, missing. He checked the video, which showed a man pick the lock to enter the room and then disable the video.

The landlord installed alarms on the coin machines and since then has been collecting far more money than before. But two washers were vandalized, possibly as retaliation, he said. From video he has found two other people breaking in. 

Since Feb. 21 there has been a warrant on the lone suspect so far, Robert William Ronning, 41. He failed to appear at a hearing in January on two charges of third-degree burglary, both felonies. There is also a warrant on him in Douglas County for bail jumping and possession of tools for entry into a locked coin box.

Ronning was arrested in November 2017 in connection with an apartment burglary in Proctor. A mass of keys were recovered in a car left at the scene, including keys to the building owned by the Duluth landlord. Some keys were current while others were years old, the landlord said.

Ronning has criminal records dating back to 1998 in St. Louis, Carlton, Itasca and Douglas counties, including theft and possession of weapons. In perhaps his most colorful case from 2012, he and two other men were seen behind the DECC drilling into a coin-operated mounted binocular. When confronted, they fled and the tools were later found by a dumpster. 

Ronning went to the M & H gas station on Superior Street and boarded a parked bus with an “out of service” sign. The driver drove away with him on board but called the police, while assuring Ronning she was talking to her husband. Police pulled over the bus by the Holiday Center. The officer reported that while being handcuffed, Ronning appeared to reach for his pocket with his free arm. A large knife was found in the pocket. Ronning was convicted of criminal property damage and interfering with a peace officer, both misdemeanors.

Other landlords have reported thefts of laundry machines, but not with the same method. “I’ve had several break-ins but they were not as sophisticated,” said the manager of another apartment complex. “They just took a crowbar to the coin mechanism.”

The website Dependable Laundry offers tips for preventing laundry theft:

- Regularly empty coin boxes.

- Have washing machines accept tokens rather than coins. If there is no money on the premises there is no incentive for burglary.

- Make the laundry room well-lit with clear, unobstructed windows to make thieves think twice about being spotted by passersby outside. Have entrance and exit doors well-lit.

- Install a high-quality video surveillance system and high-security coin boxes.

The St. Louis County warrants website states, “Do not attempt to apprehend the person yourself or approach them on your own. Some persons may be armed and dangerous, so arrests should be handled by law enforcement only. If you know the whereabouts of one of the individuals listed, please contact the St. Louis County 911 Communications non-emergency number at 218-625-3581.”

People who want to report crimes to the Duluth police may call 911 or report online at duluthmn.gov/police/ereporting.