Holiday thieves bring kettle of trouble

December 17, 2018

Old-time police reporters often bragged about how fast they could write. They would scan the blotter, then separate the important news from the petty crimes after just a few glances.

Maybe they were that good. Or maybe they missed stories by assuming that small crimes had small consequences.

In this season of giving, what some would call a minor crime has rattled a venerable agency with its brazenness.

Someone lurking Thursday afternoon at the Walmart at 3251 Cerrillos Road stole one of the Salvation Army’s red kettles and the cash in it, said Scott Johnson, spokesman for the organization’s Southwest region.

The Salvation Army’s woman bell-ringer was speaking to a donor when the thief swooped in, snatched the kettle and ran away through the parking lot, he said. It happened so fast that nobody could tell if the thief was a man or a woman.

“The important thing is that no one was hurt in the incident, and we are grateful for that,” said Salvation Army Capt. Ned Ortiz of Santa Fe.

He offered the bell-ringer time off, but she declined. She knows this is what the Salvation Army considers its crucial stretch.

Red kettle collections in the weeks before Christmas account for 25 percent of annual donations to the Salvation Army in New Mexico.

The bell-ringer who was victimized did not want to be interviewed for this column, Johnson said. Most people working with the Salvation Army don’t call attention to themselves. They prefer to outline the organization’s service programs, which include providing shelter for homeless people and food for those who are hungry.

In a statement after the larceny, the Salvation Army said 82 cents of every dollar donated to the agency goes toward its services.

Bell-ringers and volunteers working inside the Walmart entrance on Saturday said foot traffic was brisk and all was well. They hadn’t known someone stole a kettle containing an unknown amount of cash.

One promised extra vigilance, saying jokingly of the kettle, “I’ll guard it with my life.”

Of course, the Salvation Army doesn’t want its staff and volunteers confronting or chasing thieves. That might escalate a theft to a crime of violence.

Prime fundraising days are dwindling, but the agency would rather absorb losses than risk anyone’s safety.

Salvation Army red kettles have been a holiday fixture since 1891. Thieves across the country have been eyeing the kettles for almost as long.

In Winston-Salem, N.C., someone pirated a kettle after a bell-ringer stepped away from his post to help a woman and her four grandchildren navigate the double doors of a shopping center.

In Pinellas Park, Fla., a man that one newspaper called the Kettle-stealing Grinch struck twice in a week. He swiped a kettle, then returned to the same spot and did it again.

And in Layton, Utah, someone stole a kettle and then used it to trick unsuspecting people into donating to his criminal enterprise instead of the Salvation Army.

These are only a handful of hundreds of documented thefts of red kettles. Nobody knows the total number. Many of the crimes didn’t make the news, given that they were considered of the small-fry variety.

Johnson said the thief in Santa Fe was one of two in recent times to pilfer red kettles in New Mexico. The other struck last year in Las Cruces.

Red kettles are a part of Americana, of charity and, unfortunately, of crime.

Those who steal them might be as desperate as bank robbers, stooping low in hopes of feeding a drug habit. Thieves of red kettles have no sense of what they’re getting. Donations aren’t totaled until the end of the day, when the kettles are emptied.

Whatever the amount of the theft, it’s money the Salvation Army can’t afford to lose.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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