It’s A Wonderful Life?

We had quite a week at Union Rescue Mission.

I received a call at 4:26 A.M. Sunday morning that smoke was coming out of our cashier’s office in our downtown facility. I initially hoped this was due to something minor, like a clock alarm or something overheating, but we had no such fortune. A call a moment later confirmed a bizarre event.

Our secure 2nd floor had been entered, the cashier’s office doors forced open, and our safe broken open. The vault was actually peeled open from the back and nearly $100,000 of Union Rescue Mission’s petty cash and money our residents were saving up to move out of homelessness was taken. Worst of all, the burglar lit a fire and broke off the sprinkler head to both endanger our guests and cover his tracks with a flood of water that heavily damaged our 2nd and 1st floors. The fire alarms had gone off and hundreds of our guests were evacuated out into the cool 40 degree morning weather. I raced down to the Mission to be greeted by a crime scene.

The diligent detectives started their work by questioning the other staff and me. We spent hours being interviewed, unraveling the crime, took time to clean up the mess, and then the phone calls from media began. We discovered not only the huge loss, but also some of the reasons for the loss.

Our cashiers had been convinced by a man afraid of banks to keep his savings in the vault for years. I encouraged them not to join this man in his fear, but to always deposit the money in the bank in the future. Our cashiers had been very busy on their last day in the office before the event and were unable to make it to the bank for their normal deposit. The man happened to hit us at a very unfortunate time. Thankfully, all the cash lost was already documented electronically. The cashiers handed me a list of those whose money had been taken in the burglary.

A difficult moment came next when I had to walk downstairs to tell the news to our Red Badge Men. These men live as guests at the Mission but work outside to earn and save their money to get back on their feet. I looked for the men who had the most savings taken and let them know what had occurred. I felt like the character Jimmy Stewart played in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when he had to inform the people of his community that all of their savings were gone. I hoped this story didn’t follow the same course. A couple of the men stormed off angry, understandably, with their arms in the air, fearful that they had lost everything that they had worked hard and planned for. Then they calmed down and thanked me for letting them know what was going on. One man humbly remarked, “Nothing good is going to happen to the person who did this.” Another grabbed my arm, and sweetly said, “Andy, don’t let this ruin your Christmas.” What an amazing response. I assured all of them, that no matter what, the Union Rescue Mission would not stand by and let them lose their money. Through insurance, police efforts to recover the money, and our own fundraising, their savings and their dreams to visit family or move to their own place would be fulfilled and their savings restored.

Our security team and detectives soon discovered footage from one of our video surveillance cameras that showed the burglar walking down our stairway, pulling his stocking camp down his face a bit, stopping in front of the camera to make a few turns of his head, grabbing his gloves in kind of a “I showed you” statement, and then exited the building with his side bag full of cash slung over his shoulder. Our security team and program men viewed the tape over and over until about 9:30 P.M., then called me to the video monitors where we watched it a few more times. We soon recognized the burglar as a man who left us on Friday with a grudge, bragging that our Security had no idea of what “he was capable of doing.” He is a big strong guy, strong enough to move a 600-800 lb. safe 6 feet by himself and peal it open layer by layer. As we reviewed the tape of him exiting our doors at 3:21 A.M., someone immediately was reminded he had heard the burglar had moved to a specific SRO hotel over the weekend. I immediately called and emailed the police and connected with the detectives very early the next morning.

The detectives met us at Union Rescue Mission, went directly to the hotel, and soon we received a call that they had captured the suspect. They were then in search of the car we heard he had purchased with our men’s money. In total we know that he purchased two cars. While in police custody, he feigned a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. At the hospital a nurse found the jewelry taken from our safe on his person. From her inventory notes, Cindy, our cashier, quickly identified the jewelry by telling the detectives the inscription located inside of the jewelry piece without even looking at the jewelry – a sight unseen! The detective told me that our cashier is a genius, with photographic memory. Until that moment all of the evidence known was circumstantial, but now his fate was sealed.

Sadly, when it happened, we were already in a huge cash crunch. We opened a whole new facility through Hope Gardens Family Center this year, and just this week, to make sure no one will be left out in the rain this winter season, Union Rescue Mission, through our public benefit corporation, Eimago, Inc., had just opened 3 new winter weather shelters at three other facilities across the city. When the burglary occurred, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Now this?”

But I am humbled with thankfulness at the response others have made across the city. Four days later, we received a $50,000 check in the mail! Fabian Nunez, Speaker of the California Assembly stopped by to view the damage and promised $10,000 and a call to the Governor. Another man offered $10,000 and still another donor sent funds to purchase plane tickets for a Red Badge man who lost his money and was saving to see his family for the holidays. Four Safe companies have offered us heavier duty, well protected safes. Our Mission community has pulled together and worked as a team to overcome this challenge. We are looking ahead with hope to see what God is going to creatively do with this horrible event. It is indeed a Wonderful Life! -Andy B.

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