Business owner wants burglars caught

Don Weckler, owner of Starlite Vapor, is offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who can help catch a suspect(s) involved in burglaries at his business located on State Highway 29.  (Christine Bolaños Photo)

Don Weckler, owner of Starlite Vapor, is offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who can help catch a suspect(s) involved in burglaries at his business located on State Highway 29. (Christine Bolaños Photo)

By Christine Bolaños 

A Liberty Hill business owner is considering closing shop after three burglaries and an unresolved case.

Don Weckler owns Starlite Vapor on State Highway 29. He said his business was burglarized on Aug. 1, 2014, May 15 this year, and most recently, on Memorial Day.

He suspects those responsible are teenagers from the community who know the area well. They have been able to get into the property despite security cameras, a motion detector, alarms, dead-bolted door and a gate locker.

“The e-cigarette industry is really popular and thieves can get items easily and sell them to anybody,” Weckler said.

He said other resident teenagers claim they have seen stolen products from Starlite Vapor being sold out in the black market.

It is a hard pill to swallow for Weckler who has been able to identify those he suspects of breaking and entering. He has reached out for help from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and Liberty Hill Police Department. However, he said law enforcement told him they cannot pursue anyone unless they are caught in the act.

Damage includes stolen products, broken glass and a sense of helplessness and frustration. There were two attempted burglaries on Oct. 27, 2014 and May 26, 2015, in addition to the three break-ins.

“We feel almost helpless,” Weckler said.

He said he has heard from fellow home owners and business owners who are experiencing similar situations including stolen dirt bikes and ATVs. Part of the problem, he believes, is that local law enforcement needs more resources to ensure police officers can patrol the streets during the wee hours of the night.

Those responsible, he suspects, know the Liberty Hill Police Department is not staffed 24 hours a day and use that to their advantage.

Liberty Hill Police Department became a full-time agency for less than one year in 2011. But there wasn’t enough manpower to make the change a success.

With five full-time officers, including the police chief, the department provided around-the-clock coverage. Sgt. Jeff Ringstaff, who lost almost two weeks of vacation time during that period, said the arrangement didn’t work because more officers were needed.

“No one could take any time off without it affecting every other employee,” Ringstaff recalled.

Ringstaff is serving as interim police chief pending the arrival of Maverick Campbell, who was hired in May as Liberty Hill’s new police chief.

Ringstaff said the outgoing chief figured that for every three patrol officers, an additional person was needed to cover sick time, vacation, holiday and state-mandated training time.

During budget preparations in 2015, the former chief requested funding for two additional patrol positions, which would have brought the department to seven full-time employees.

The request was denied, but city staff promised to revisit the possibility of creating one position at mid-year. The former chief resigned in April and the matter has not been discussed pending the arrival of the new chief.

“I think every department should strive to be 24 hours. That should be a goal, but I don’t know that it’s the next goal,” Ringstaff said. “We need to have the depth to cover what we do now, adequately, as much as we need the 24-hour (presence).”

He said the purpose of having a 24-hour department is to provide preventive patrols. However, having just one officer on duty in Liberty Hill at 3 a.m. may not stop every crime.

The police department lost two of its five officers in recent weeks cutting its availability by 30-40 percent. If the police force had the staffing it needed, the loss of two people wouldn’t have a significant impact on its coverage.

Ringstaff, who was not speaking for the new chief, said his personal opinion is that the bare minimum staffing for the department should be one chief and eight officers on patrol — two on each day shift and two on each night shift.

He said this would provide the depth necessary to provide coverage if an officer is out.

Cities frequently use a federal suggested staffing ratio of one officer per 1,000 population. However, the ratio applies after a city is already providing basic coverage. It’s a number used to explain a need to create patrol positions after everything is covered. In Liberty Hill’s case, it wouldn’t apply.

Last month, the incoming police chief told The Independent that growth in the community warrants a closer look at the police department.

“The police department has to become a full-service law enforcement agency at some point,” Campbell said. He said having the number of officers on staff to turn the department into a 24-hour department will become essential with community growth.

“I’m prepared to work the numbers to get more staffing and I don’t think I’ll get resistance from the City with that because I believe public safety is just as important in their minds as it is in mine,” Campbell said.

As the community awaits the possibility for change within the department, business owners such as Weckler are turning to the community for help.

He is offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who can tip law enforcement regarding Case Number 2016-05-01381. Those with information should call the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department at 512-943-1300.

People can give anonymous or online tips, he said. Weckler has considered putting up bars on windows, but, he said, police officers advised him the burglars can pull those down and get inside.

“People in the community know because it’s happening to them but I don’t think, as a whole, they know what’s going on,” he said. “Maybe it’s going to take the Chamber of Commerce to help the city help the police force get something better. There’s got to be a way the police can pick up known offenders.”

Other Liberty Hill businesses have been burglarized within the past year, but Ringstaff said the number of incidents is minimal. The burglaries tend to occur at times when Liberty Hill police are not on duty. The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office responds when the alarms go off in these cases. Only in cases where the property owner didn’t have an alarm system and found the damage the next morning did the local police force take a report.

Weckler said he is at a point where he may close shop because the stress level is not worth it anymore. If he does close the doors at Starlite Vapor, it will be to return to corporate America, and not to relocate his business elsewhere.

“I hope the City will actually start looking a little bit harder and doing a bit more for the community,” he said. “Someone is going to have to stand up and start helping us. Sooner or later one of these kids is going to walk into the wrong shed or something and get shot.”