Spree of vending machine thefts targeting schools, arenas

Thieves are smashing school windows, prying open arena doors and sneaking into apartment buildings across Ottawa to plunder cash from vending machines, police say.

Ottawa police say some of the at least 30 break-ins since February appear linked

Jerry Best, owner of Best's Vending Services, says he's had more than 20 of his machines broken into, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Thieves are smashing school windows, prying open arena doors and sneaking into apartment buildings across Ottawa to plunder cash from vending machines, police say. 

Over the past three months, thieves have broken into at least 30 different locations to get at the machines. They take the cash but leave behind the snacks, the small change — and a costly trail of damage. 

Jerry Best, owner of one of Ottawa's largest vending machine companies, estimates the total destruction at as much as $100,000.

I really feel like it's almost a personal attack on me, my business and my livelihood.- Jerry Best, Best's Vending Services

"I really feel like it's almost a personal attack on me, my business and my livelihood," said Best. "I worry about my future."

Now several competing companies are banding together to try to put a stop to the crime spree.

They've made their machines more difficult to break into, limited the amount of cash left inside and installed GPS trackers in an attempt to catch the criminals. They've even pooled their money to offer a $2,000 reward to anyone who helps crack the case. 

'It's very frustrating'

Best started in the vending machine business nearly four decades ago, fresh out of high school. He said in all his years he's never seen a break-in spree like this.
Damage caused by thieves to one machine during a recent break-in in Ottawa. (Submitted)

"It's very frustrating and very stressful," said Best. "In the past we've had a break-in here and a break-in there, but nothing ongoing like this."

More than 20 of his machines have been targeted recently, including a break-in Thursday night at the Nepean Sportsplex.

At first the thieves were getting away with hundreds of dollars, but since Best started emptying the machines of cash more often, he estimates they're pocketing much less.

More costly is the damage they do to the machines, Best said.

"They break displays on the machines that are electronic parts, they bend the doors, the locks are broken." 

Some machines destroyed

The damage done to some of Francois Bastien's vending machines is so severe he's written them off completely.

Those that can be repaired need to be shipped to Montreal, said Bastien, owner of Ventrex Vending. Every day his machines are out of service costs him.

Bastien said the burglars are "savagely destroying" his machines with what could be pliers and crowbars. 

"We're mad," said Bastien. "We also feel powerless because we don't know where they are going to hit next."
Kamel El-Cheikh estimates he's out $4,000 in lost income after his machines were targeted during break-ins at two Ottawa schools.

Police hunt suspects

Police in Ottawa and Gatineau are working together to catch those responsible. They believe many of the break-ins dating back to Feb. 21 could be the work of the same criminals.

"As we typically see sometimes, once somebody catches onto something and it works the first few times, they'll keep coming back to it," said Staff Sgt. Michael Haarbosch of the Ottawa police robbery unit. "What works will continue to work typically until the person gets caught."

Security cameras at schools and arenas have captured the images of two suspects. In some of the break-ins security alarms rang, but the burglars got away before police or security guards arrived.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said it's also working closely with police and its own security firm to put a stop to the thefts on its property, but board spokeswoman Sharlene Hunter told CBC the perpetrators appear to be "very skilled and knowledgeable" about their targets.

Trickle-down cost

Police said there's a trickle-down cost since schools and other public facilities have to replace doors and windows damaged in the break-ins.
The loonie and toonie slots were ripped out of this vending machine inside an Ottawa school. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Another vending machine owner, Kamel El-Cheikh, said his machines have been broken into at two different schools.

El-Cheikh said the royalties he pays the schools to host his machines go toward after-school programs such as sports teams and homework clubs.

"We're not million-dollar companies," said El-Cheikh. "They're robbing local companies who fund school activities."