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Tip helps collar smash-and-grab burglary suspect
The man hit at least 100 places in four counties, authorities think.
By JONATHAN ABEL
Published June 6, 2007
The businesses, more than 100 in all, have names like Dairy Rich and Happy Days hair salon. Each had a window or doors bashed in by bricks or concrete chunks.
On Tuesday, authorities arrested a man in Tarpon Springs who they think is responsible for a rash of smash-and-grab burglaries in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties.
The break-ins started in March and ended after a newspaper carrier spotted transient Robert Koester, 47, on Drew Street in Clearwater just before 4:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The deliveryman saw Koester breaking into A+ Nail Design and Spa and Peck's Flame-Broiled Chicken, authorities said. He called Clearwater police, who, in turn, called neighboring agencies.
As it happened, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office had 20 deputies and detectives in the area on the lookout for the smash-and-grab burglar.
Minutes later, deputies and a Tarpon Springs police officer stopped Koester on U.S. 19 near Anclote Boulevard. They learned he was wanted on a violation of probation warrant from Michigan and was driving without a license, Pinellas sheriff's officials said.
Deputies also searched his car, finding tools, two-way radios, a concrete chunk and $900 in small bills - all consistent with the burglaries.
Koester was later charged with two burglaries in unincorporated Pinellas County, two in Clearwater, and one in Tarpon Springs - though he is a suspect in nearly 115 more. Detectives from agencies across the region said they were preparing to charge him in their cases.
At Tarpon Lanes bowling alley, general manager Brenda Chadwell said she had been waiting to hear of an arrest.
Tarpon Springs police suspect Koester in the May 22 burglary of the bowling alley in which the burglar did $5, 000 in damage, smashing a jukebox, destroying video games at the bar and scattering glass across the floor, while the haul from the cash register amounted to just $200.
"He did more damage than he got in cash, " Chadwell said.
At the Tarpon Animal Hospital, another place deputies say Koester burglarized, a window was broken on March 17 and a man was caught on surveillance tape.
He made away with only $20 from the cash register. It could have been much worse.
"We really could have had our entire practice turned upside down, " office manager Chris Abbate said.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is looking at Koester for at least 29 smash-and-grab burglaries, but he has not been charged with any of those crimes, spokesman Doug Tobin said.
Pasco detectives interviewed Koester for a couple of hours Tuesday morning, Tobin said. They plan to review the evidence - including fingerprints removed from at least one Pasco burglary - to see if Koester is their guy, Tobin said.
Whoever hit the Pasco businesses targeted mom-and-pop restaurants, dry cleaners, pet stores and other shops, striking at least 17 in the Land O'Lakes area and at least 12 more along the U.S. 19 corridor.
"Most of the time what was taken was small change. It was businesses that had donations or tips, " Tobin said.
"He wasn't getting a tremendous amount of money. In fact, he was causing more damage to the business than what he was getting from the burglary."
In Hernando, deputies think Koester may be connected to at least 25 break-ins at area businesses since March 30.
Mostly, the targets were mom-and-pop restaurants struck after they closed.
Hernando County sheriff's Deputy Donna Black said her agency is coordinating with Pinellas investigators.
Koester was also charged as a parole absconder from Michigan. He was being held at the Pinellas County Jail without bail.
Staff writers John Frank and Bridget Hall Grumet contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.