A year-long rash of targeted smash-and-grabs has prompted the owners of a rural mom-and-pop convenience store to give up their business after 14 years.
The XTR gas bar and C-Store in Miniota has been a magnet for break-ins that have drained owners Delbert and Pat Cole of at least $20,000 in repairs and lost merchandise, mostly liquor.
All of the break-ins are believed to have been by a group of young people from the nearby Birdtail Sioux First Nation, located about 20 kilometres away.
The highway store is a common destination for Birdtail members — it’s a grocery and liquor store, and band members are able to cash band cheques in an effort to keep the money flowing in the local economy.
"We never had any trouble before, very minimal," said Delbert Cole. "We do lots of business with (members of Birdtail Sioux) ... but it’s not the majority by any means."
But the owners buckled under the stress of regular burglaries in the otherwise quiet prairie town.
The robberies aren’t always the exact same group of people, but there is a lot of overlap.
The sentencing of a 15-year-old Birdtail Sioux boy was the latest case to come through Brandon provincial court. The teen was sentenced on Thursday to two years probation for two overnight robberies, one in September and another in October of last year.
Early morning on Sept. 7, a trio of young people, including the 15-year-old, his 13-year-old cousin and a 22-year-old driver, smashed into the store and took off with 32 bottles of booze.
It took Cole one minute and 49 seconds to get from his home to the store after the alarm company called. He got there before the group’s van got away, at which time he cornered the vehicle before the driver rammed his way out. However, Cole was able to ID the driver.
"We knew who it was, and we had people from (Birdtail) telling us who it was, but we could not put a finger on them till that night," Cole said.
Most of the booze, 29 bottles, was left in the ditch as the van took off.
"They bring duffle bags — they bring hockey bags," he said. "Last summer, it was at least once a month, you wake up at two in the morning and you hear a vehicle driving around and you think, ‘Oh man, is it again tonight?’ It’s very stressful."
The store has a reinforced cage that holds a lot of the hard liquor, but it has been bent. There are bars on the windows and shatter-proof glass on the door, which kept thieves out the last two attempts in March and April, but didn’t stop them from causing substantial damage to the door.
"We’ve fortified it, but I don’t know how much it has cost us," Cole said.
Come July, the Coles will hand over the keys to a new owner who will close down the location, Cole believes.
The store employs nine mostly part-time workers who he said won’t be hired by the new owner.
"I’m happy the headaches are over, but this isn’t the result that I wanted for the town," he said. "It’s a huge loss to the town.
"No one else was knocking at the door and I had enough ... if we hadn’t had all the break-ins, I probably would have persevered."
Shoal Lake RCMP staff Sgt. Bob Chabot said all suspects believed to be part of the group of young people, ranging in age from 13 to mid-20s, have been charged.
"From the first time they were successful, they probably thought they could do it again and again," Chabot said.
Birdtail Sioux Chief Nelson Kelly Bunn also believes the rash of robberies have come to an end.
"It all stopped, it all stopped, there’s no such thing anymore," Bunn said. "They’re not around anymore. My community is
A-1 right now and there’s nothing wrong here."
Former Birdtail Sioux chief Ken Chalmers said he is aware of the string of break-ins at the store and hopes the culprits’ actions won’t be reflective of the Birdtail community as a whole.
"We work so hard," he said. "We’d like to have good relationships with the other communities and their businesses.
"I hope it doesn’t reflect on the whole community, there’s a lot of good kids out here ... these kids are sort of a lost group."
» Twitter: @grjbruce