Beaufort News

When evacuation was in place, looters moved in on Beaufort County

A warning to would-be looters at the entrance of Coffin Point Plantation on St. Helena Island.
A warning to would-be looters at the entrance of Coffin Point Plantation on St. Helena Island.

They stole as little as a breakfast sausage, but as much as thousands of dollars in gold.

The looters evacuees feared while away from their homes did strike, according to reports from the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and the Beaufort Police and Bluffton Police departments.

They stole guns and televisions, gasoline powered generators and gasoline. They took jewelry and coins and cash, electronics and outdoor furniture.

They kicked in doors, broke windows and removed air conditioning units.

Across the county from Oct. 5 through Oct. 11, 47 burglary cases were reported to the Sheriff’s Office. A majority of those cases were reported on Hilton Head Island with 11 instances and St. Helena Island with 9 cases.

In Bluffton, six cases were reported during that time frame and a Bluffton man was charged in three of those burglaries, according to the Bluffton Police Department.

In one case, before she evacuated, a Dale woman reported $40,000 worth of gold bars missing from a cardboard box labeled "Gold and Gun."

She had put the cardboard box in a small safe a few months earlier at the suggestion of a neighbor, whom she had shown the valuables. She asked her neighbor to store the box in his larger safe during the evacuation. That’s when he noticed the gold bars missing.

The 30 bars, about an ounce each, were valued at $39,000.

On Hilton Head, a woman reported several electronics stolen after looters pushed in through her daughter’s window. Thankfully, the family had evacuated and was not home at the time of the break in .

Station One gas station on Palmetto Parkway was also broken into and several items were stolen, according to a Sheriff’s Office report. The alarm activated, but deputies were unable to see the suspect because the cameras were not working since the power was out at the time of the incident.

In another case, a woman said sausage had been stolen from her refrigerator, but the bed was more made up than she left it and the cat's water had been topped off.

The looters - or the prospect of them - had those who stayed during the evacuation on edge.

A man told deputies he had taken on a newspaper route on St. Helena for a friend when a man in a truck confronted him and raised a gun in the air.

The man with the gun told deputies he could have handled the situation better but had been on the lookout for suspicious activity. Other called deputies for as little as a loose doorknob.

A Lady's Island woman said someone stole thousands in jewelry, $1,000 in coins, Coach purses, her .357 Magnum. -- even pots and pans.

Five rifles, $10,000 in jewelry, XBox games, iPhones and a laptop were missing from another Lady's Island home, with the owner telling deputies a blue crowbar had been left behind by the burglar.

Televisions, tablet computers and jewelry were stolen in Seabrook.

On Capers Island Road on St. Helena, $15,000 in cash, coins, jewelry and liquor went missing.

In Beaufort, burglaries were reported in Jericho Woods, Waight Street, Talbird Road, River Acres, Hundred Pines and Battery Point.

A St. Helena Island resident and burglary victim said he’s glad he evacuated and he would do it again. Looters took about $15,000 worth of his belongings, but Achan Laifang said there wasn’t much damage to his home.

“I’m alive,” Laifang said. “I’m not even going to fuss ... I left it.” He said he won’t try to replace the sentimental things that were taken, including his coin collection, and then if there’s a next time there won’t be anything to steal, he said. Hurricane Matthew “wasn’t something to stay for.”

Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Cpt. Bob Bromage said an “extremely small percentage” of people will stay behind in an evacuation just for the purpose of breaking into and stealing from homes, but that shouldn’t be a reason for homeowners to risk their lives. The Sheriff’s Office implements curfews in an attempt to limit criminal activity during evacuations.

“Human life is precious and property can be replaced,” Bromage said. Everyone who remains behind to guard their belongings during a mandatory evacuation increases the risk of harm coming to them, he said. Citizens can bring items like firearms, jewelry, things of sentimental value and important paperwork with them when evacuating or insure precious items and keep them well documented, Bromage said.

During a hurricane that brought as much destruction as Matthew did, safety is more important than material things, he said.

Joan McDonough: 843-706-8125, @IPBG_Joan

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen

Caitlin Turner: 843-706-8184, @Cait_E_Turner