'A rural crime crisis': Business owners in Vilna, Alta. plagued by break-ins

Business owners in Vilna, Alta. have started to joke that they work in a plywood community.

Three local businesses have been targeted in the past month

The latest break-in at the Vilna Pharmacy on Nov. 23 caused more than $22,000 worth of damage. (Denise Gillis)

Business owners in Vilna, Alta. have started to joke that they work in a plywood community. 

They are referring to the planks of wood blocking off the entrances and windows of at least three businesses on the village's main block after a spike in break-ins over the past month. The Vilna pharmacy, liquor store and hardware store have all been targeted.

In a community with roughly 300 residents, the break-ins are hard to miss. 

Rashida Yamani is the owner of the Vilna Pharmacy. She said the recent break-ins are a major blow to businesses in a rural area. 

"Our population is smaller and you're further away from police so they take longer to respond," Yamani said. "Our criminals are not foolish."

"We become more vulnerable. Our repairs take longer, and our losses sometimes feel like they're greater. It's harder for us to restock and we lose business because we're closed."

The latest break-in at her business on Nov. 23 caused more than $22,000 in damage, she said. That same night there was an earlier, unsuccessful, attempt to break into the Vilna Liquor Store.

The aftermath of a break-in at Vilna Pharmacy on Nov. 23. (Supplied by Rashida Yamani)

A pick-up truck backed through the front of Yamani's pharmacy around 4 a.m. setting off the alarm to notify the RCMP and local volunteer firefighters. Two male suspects entered the pharmacy and stole a large amount of prescription drugs, but no narcotics because they are kept in a secure location.

It took the RCMP about 40 minutes to arrive, Yamani said.

Cpl. Ron Bumbry said the Smoky Lake detachment is investigating the incidents in Vilna. 

Multiple businesses in Vilna, Alta. have windows and doors boarded up with plywood. (Denise Gillis)

"We have increased our patrols in the area," Cpl. Ron Bumbry said. "Vilna is relatively a smaller community so we've asked the public there to be very vigilant."

He added there have been thefts reported in other communities in the surrounding areas but couldn't say if they are linked to the Vilna break-ins.

Yamani said after the break-in she "feels alone".

"There's always a fear that it's going to happen again. There's only so much you can do."

She said every time a claim is submitted for a break-in, her insurance goes up.

As a business owner, Yamani feels more vulnerable now than ever. Before the break-in, there was concrete, shutters and bars protecting the pharmacy. Now there's only plywood with a bit of insulation.

"Where it was difficult to break-in before now it's really a piece of cake," Yamani said.

Rashida Yamani is the owner of the Vilna Pharmacy. (Supplied by Rashida Yamani)

'They don't care' 

Vilna Mayor Leo Chapdelaine said there is a "rural crime crisis" happening all over northeastern Alberta right now. 

He said people are stealing vehicles, coming into towns and backing into the front walls of businesses. Once they do that they run in and grab whatever they can.

"They're in and out in five minutes," Chapdelaine said."They don't care."

He said he's heard of break-ins to businesses in St. Paul, Bonnyville and Grandin, Alta. over the past couple weeks as well.

Chapdelaine blames the economy for the rash of recent break-ins.

"The economy is very bad right now. People are broke. People have no jobs, there's not much work around," Chapdelaine said.

As for what he thinks should be done, the mayor would like to see anyone charged for these crimes to face tougher consequences.

He's also encouraging business owners to put barricades up in front of their buildings, but recognizes that'll cost owners money they don't necessarily have.

"At one time I never used to lock my doors but today, if you're in your house you have to lock the doors," Chapdelaine said.

"That's how bad the crime is getting in rural Alberta."