Buddhist center burglary could be inside job

By Courtney Bonnell, East Valley Tribune, July 31, 2006

Volunteers at the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation in Chandler suspect that a burglary there late Thursday was the handiwork of someone familiar with the organization.

Arizona, USA -- Longtime foundation volunteer Arthur Tai said the intruders stole mostly donated electronic equipment including two projectors, cameras, camcorders, two wireless microphones, a plasma TV and two computers — valued about $40,000.

The computers stolen from the center at 2145 W. Elliot Road contained personal information of volunteers and the people who use the center’s services. The information included Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and copies of drivers’ licenses.

Tai said he thinks the intruders are familiar with the charity, which gives food and money to the needy and provides some free medical services, because they took the projectors’ remotes, which were hidden away from the projectors.

Charity workers noted the center’s main door has an unusual lock that goes into the upper frame, which the intruders knew to break. The burglars broke a small window in the back bathroom but entered through the main door after picking its locks.

Investigators found the head of a Buddha statue broken off at the center. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is looking at the burglary as a possible hate crime, although there are no suspects.

“We feel comfortable we’ll catch them when we do the fingerprints and all the forensic activity,” Sheriff Joe Arpaio said Sunday. “But we hope to catch the person or persons and just see if there was any hate crime involvement.”

The crime happened between 10 p.m. Thursday night and 9 a.m. Friday morning, when the center was empty, on the heels of the 15th anniversary of the Buddhist monk murders in Goodyear. Arpaio said the coincidence was “interesting” but the crimes were not connected.

Arpaio advised those at risk of identity theft to take precautions such as canceling credit cards.

The center, which has been active for 10 years, will have difficulty looking up information, making it inefficient in serving needy people in the East Valley, said Frances Lin, director of the service center.

Lin walked through the center’s office pointing out where the burglars rifled through papers, opened drawers and file cabinets and attempted to open a small, gray safe.

The Buddha sat on top of a file cabinet, next to the safe, and Lin said she thinks the statue was accidently knocked off while the intruders tried to break open the safe’s lock.

Arpaio put the total loss at $40,000 but Lin estimated it was about $28,000 to $30,000.

The center changed its locks, called a security company and plans to add a gate to beef up security, Lin said.

“We will not let everything stop,” Lin said of the burglary. “We never do anything wrong, we never make any enemies. The only things we do are help the poor people and help the needy.”