This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
Thirty years ago, an unknown person or persons used a master key to steal the coin canisters from more than 60 parking meters in downtown Belleville. City employees from at least three different departments spoke to the Belleville News-Democrat about the crime. No one was ever held accountable for the thefts.
The 1987 thefts from the parking meters were discovered when the Belleville Meter Department employees were checking the nickel and dime meters during their collection process. The cans inside the parking meters that contained the change were gone.
In a BND article by reporter Kevin Smith on Jan. 7, 1987, Belleville police Sgt. James Rokita, who was chief of detectives at that time and later Belleville chief of police, said there were no signs of forced entry on the meters. “(A master key) is not something you can just go and get,” Rokita said at the time. “It’s a real mystery.”
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Rokita was contacted by the BND recently about the parking meter thefts in 1987. He said he remembered when the robberies happened but did not recall any specific details and had no comment.
It was, after all, 30 years ago.
Smith reported only a few people had easy access to the parking meter keys. Some of those people included the Belleville city treasurer and the Meter Department employees.
Lindel Barker, who served as Belleville city treasurer in 1987, was quoted in Smith’s story. “I guess somebody must have got a key from somewhere, that’s all we can think of,” Barker said.
Duplicates of the parking meter keys were kept in the treasurer’s office.
According to Barker, the company that manufactured the city’s meters only distributed keys to people who could prove they were “legitimate purchasing agents.” Barker doubted the thief had managed to do so, saying getting a master key from the manufacturer would be “almost impossible.”
Barker also doubted the theft was an inside job. He said, “I just wish we could catch those bad guys.”
The parking meter key was not the only tool the bandit needed to access the money, the canisters inside the meters were locked with a separate key. Without the canister key, an ax or hacksaw would be needed to extract the change, destroying the canister in the process.
Barker estimated the change taken from the meters was not substantial. The canisters, however, were valued at $27 each.
If the canisters were not located or found in pieces, it was going to cost Belleville more than $1,000 to replace them.
Barker told the BND in 1987: “We’d sure like to get those cans back.”
His wish was granted the next day when the missing canisters were found in the Belleville sewers by city employees. The cans were empty but intact which indicated the bandit had both keys.
Robert Bunch, the superintendent of the Belleville parking Meter Department at that time, was quoted in Smith’s article about recovering the canisters from the sewers on Jan. 8, 1987. “It’s a lousy way to risk going to jail just for a few dollars in change,” Bunch said.
In 1987, Bunch told the BND a few years earlier, a rash of parking meter thefts had taken place in Belleville. Someone was emptying the coin canisters each week and re-locking the meters.
He said authorities held nighttime stakeouts to catch the thieves, but saw nothing mysterious. Finally, two 60-year-old men were busted using a homemade key to access the parking meters on Sunday afternoons.
Bunch said, “We were looking for them at night and they were doing it in broad daylight, and no one ever called the police.”
Bunch said it would be possible to steal a whole parking meter and make a homemade key from it, as the two men did, but the effort outweighed the risk.
“Those things probably don’t have more than $1 or $2 dollars in them,” Bunch said.
Rokita was quoted in the canister recovery story as well. “Occasionally, there’s a whole meter missing and some arrests have been made. This is kind of different,” Rokita said in 1987.
No one was ever found to be responsible for the 1987 parking meter thefts.
Belleville parking meters now
Officer Sean Harris, of the Belleville Police Department, is the current supervisor of the two community service officers who collect the coins from the parking meters on a part-time basis. The Belleville Parking Meter Department no longer exists.
“Between the two of them, we have coverage Monday through Friday. Meter enforcement is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. On holidays, there is none and, on the weekends, there is none,” Harris said.
Harris has been a Belleville police officer since 2007 and the parking meter supervisor since 2012.
Harris said there has been very little crime as far as the parking meters are concerned during the time he has overseen them. “Occasionally someone takes them out with a car, accidental, while parking,” he said. “Nobody goes at them with bats or anything like that.”
Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay recalled one or two instances of parking meter thefts in the time he has worked for the police department. He agreed with Harris that such problems are rare.
Clay’s philosophy for the parking meters today is that he wants compliance. He said the reality of the situation is that parking is limited in Belleville and there needs to be a balance in the relationship between police, merchants and customers.
Two part-time community service officers issue more warnings than tickets to encourage meter compliance.
The Belleville city website says there are approximately 700 parking meters in the city.