A burglary spree in the Chinatown International District leaves businesses frustrated and heartbroken
Fuji Bakery, Trichome, Can’t Blame the Youth, Moksha, Sun Bakery, Kaname.
These are just handful of the Chinatown International District businesses that have experienced break-ins over the last year, according to LeiAnn Shiramizu and her husband, Tom Kleifgen.
Shiramizu and Kleifgen co-own a cozy boutique on Jackson Street called Momo. Inside are handcrafted gift items, cards, carefully curated clothing and locally sourced skin care products.
Kliefgen has installed a window grate on the door as a precaution. It wasn’t there a year ago.
“All these break-ins are breaking this neighborhood’s spirit,” Shiramizu said. “It’s not good.”
Break-ins targeting small businesses in the Chinatown International District have spiked since last summer. Seattle Police Department data shows overall crime in the neighborhood peaked in 2018, with a total of 1,559 crimes reported that year. Reported neighborhood burglaries increased to 153 last year, up from 118 the year before.
These break-ins have hit a nerve, resurfacing the community’s continuing frustration with public safety and police response. At the same time, the community is still mourning the loss of a cherished leader, Donnie Chin, who worked to strengthen law enforcement and emergency responses in the neighborhood.
Moksha, another boutique on King Street was the first target of the break in-spree. Moksha co-owner Karleen Ilagan said the burglar used a cylindrical trash can to pop out the glass windows.
The store’s security camera showed the break-in at 2 a.m., but Ilagan didn’t get an alert from their security system. Two hours later, the police called. Moksha lost $5,000 worth of goods, Ilagan said. Since then, store owners have installed a colorful grill against the glass windowpanes.
Kliefgen, Momo’s co-owner, feels the police could do better when it comes to patrolling the neighborhood. The CID falls under Seattle’s West precinct, and that office is headquartered in Belltown.
“If you consider the amount of space they have to monitor, we somehow get the short end of the stick because they are coming all the way across town,” said Kliefgen.
SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb says officers patrol the neighborhood around the clock even though it’s harder to notice them at night. And on January 25th, police did catch a burglar responsible for some of the break-ins – a 30-year-old woman — at 2 a.m.
It doesn’t help matters that the community recently lost a longtime public safety leader. In 2015 Donnie Chin, the neighborhood’s beloved safety steward, was killed from the crossfire of a shootout. Police reports say he was not the target. His case is still open.
For 50 years, Chin had taken on the responsibility of patrolling the neighborhood – day and night – himself. He built relationships with SPD and the fire department to strengthen their presence in the neighborhood, because it didn’t always feel like they were there.
Back at Momo, Shiramizu feels Chin’s loss. Whenever she felt unsafe working late at the store, she knew she could call Chin.
“I felt like there was someone who would pick up the phone and I could count on someone, a real human being to come and answer me,” she said.
Maybe Chin’s “presence alone would have deterred some of this," Kliefgen added.
No one has filled the gap Chin has left behind, but some are doing what they can. Kerry Taniguchi, Chin’s childhood friend and a retired law enforcement officer, is keeping Chin’s legacy alive. He volunteers at the International District Emergency Center (IDEC), an organization held at a secret location in the neighborhood that Chin started when he was in middle school.
No one is at the center 24-7 the way Chin once was.
“He is like the energizer bunny, he worked eight days a week, and 26 hours a day,” Taniguchi said. “I’ve never met a person who’s more dedicated to the people, the residents, the businesses in a community than Donnie. He lived it.
As part of IDEC, Taniguchi conducts emergency training for the community. He tells people to call 911 and follow the dispatcher’s instructions to get a translator if needed.
Now, the police are trying to build on the relationships Chin had worked to form, Taniguchi said. And as a result of Chin's work, he added, police officers are a more common sight in the neighborhood.
Whitcomb said SPD is dedicated to nurturing its partnership with the neighborhood to help fight crime.
"We want to make sure it remains vibrant, it remains healthy and that the people who live there and work there not only receive those services but feel like they are receiving those police services they deserve,” he said.
The string of burglaries over the last year has tested that relationship, but Taniguchi believes it’s getting better.
“Before we were just a place on a map," he said. "But now they know us.”