A spate of downtown break-ins has restaurateur William Dissen and bar owner Chris Faber wondering about the future of Asheville.
Dissen, owner of the Marketplace Restaurant on Wall Street the past 14 years, said the thief who broke in early on the morning of Jan. 25 wasn’t able to steal much, but he caused a lot of damage — tens of thousands of dollars in damage that caused the restaurant to close for the better part of a week. The man kicked in a glass kitchen door and “wreaked havoc,” Dissen said.
“They were looking to steal money and other things, but we have a good system and keep things locked up internally, so other things got smashed up along the way,” Dissen told me. “And he smashed our security panel and tried to get into our cash drawer.”
No cash was in the drawer, but the person smashed up their point of sales system. And, apparently trying to get into the locked office, he kicked in two windows, knocked over wine racks and destroyed “thousands of dollars of wine.”
In all, Dissen’s business is out “tens of thousands of dollars.”
“It’s been like the Wild West downtown lately,” Dissen said.
Sleeping in the bar to protect it?
Faber, who owns The Times Bar & Coffee Shop next to the S&W Food Court, across from Pritchard Park, is all too familiar with that concept — he recently slept in his bar and personally foiled a third attempt at a break-in in just one week. His bar was broken into Jan. 13 and again on Jan. 19, and he sustained thousands of dollars in losses, much of it liquor theft.
“They tried to break in on the 14th, but I was here,” Faber said, noting that his front doors were broken from the previous night’s break-in and he had makeshift locks on them. “So I just camped out, and sure enough somebody came back the next night at 4:30 a.m., trying to pull on the doors. I went old-man-‘Get-off-my-lawn’ crazy on them and scared them off.”
I interviewed Dissen and Faber last week before the police announced they had arrested two suspects in the break-ins, but that didn’t change their minds about the state of downtown.
Here’s what the arrest press release stated:
Ronald Steve Anderson, 61, is charged with damage to real property, six counts of felony breaking and entering, and six counts of larceny after breaking and entering of six downtown businesses that were hit Jan. 28, according to the Asheville Police Department. He has also been identified as “a person of interest” in additional breaking and entering cases.
Anderson, who police say was recently released from prison on breaking and entering convictions, is in the county jail and being held on $30,000 secured bond.
Also arrested was William Jeter Henson III, 42, who is charged with nine counts of felony breaking and entering and seven counts of larceny after breaking and entering related to break-ins to homes and eight businesses on Haywood Road in West Asheville and in the River Arts District. He was arrested Jan. 18 and is in the Buncombe County Jail on a $10,000 secured bond.
The two men were operating independently, police said.
Clearly, the arrests are good news for the business owners, and when I talked to them, they were appreciative. Dissen said it “provides some relief” to know the people charged will be going through the justice system.
“Still, downtown crime and the homeless encampments are still an issue that’ll need to be resolved,” he said. “I think it’s a continuing conversation with APD and the city of Asheville to find solutions for public safety and protecting not just the safety but the economic viability and the future of the city.”
Faber said he’s thrilled to hear of the arrest and relieved to not feel like he has to sleep in his bar, but…
“I think for me at this point, the issue is, ‘Is there going to be prosecution?’” he said.
Too many times, Faber contends, criminals get off too lightly or are released back on to the streets to reoffend again and again.
Henson and Anderson both have prior charges of breaking and entering. Henson’s criminal record includes seven arrests since 2010. His address was an Asheville day shelter, an indication he was homeless. Henson served 13 months in prison for multiple felony breaking and entering convictions from 2019 and was still on parole through October 2022.
‘I’ll make zero dollars in January’
Last Wednesday I interviewed APD Capt. Joe Silberman, head of the Criminal Investigations Division, about crime and break-ins downtown, and I listened in on an interview with Officer Robert Crume, who worked the break-ins case. They acknowledged that the downtown has seen an uptick in break-ins, but they also cited some good old-fashioned detective work in breaking this case (some of that included Crume physically eyeballing hundreds of mugshot photos of potential suspects).
APD said so far in 2023, 11 burglaries have been reported downtown – eight commercial and three residential. In January 2022, there were seven burglaries reported – six commercial and one residential.
For all of 2022, 41 burglaries were reported downtown – 30 commercial and 11 residential. So yes, it’s a noticeable increase, the officers said.
This is all part of complicated issues that include, obviously, crime, but also police staffing and an officer shortage, homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness, tourism and more.
“What’s the solution, short of me sleeping in my bar every night?” Faber told me before learning of the arrests. “We’ve all got cameras, motion detectors, alarms, but none of those are preventing this or obviously stopping people from doing this.”
Faber worries about encounters with criminals that could turn ugly, result in fights, or even deaths. And yes, the financial hit is substantial.
“When you have someone break in who does $10,000 in damage, that may be your profit in January,” Faber said. “I’ll make zero dollars in January. Between all the cash and booze that was stolen, that’s my profit for the month.”
Faber and Dissen feel the city needs to have some serious discussions about public safety, funding more officers, and yes, possibly funneling some Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority occupancy tax dollars toward public safety.
“You’ve got to create a place where locals and others visiting downtown feel safe,” Dissen said. “If you don’t, they’re not going to come back.”
Marketplace has 32 employees, and Dissen, who lives in West Asheville, said he’s fully invested in Asheville. The restaurant is a farm-to-table operation that also creates business for local growers.
“I want to make sure I can provide a safe environment for my family, for my business, for my team,” he said. “But I feel like we’re having a difficult time doing that, because we don’t have the necessary support I should have from being a taxpaying business owner.”
Police are sympathetic
Crume, the officer who played a key role in breaking the recent break-ins case, said he’s been in touch with a lot of business owners over the past four or five years.
“And in the past year, they’ve actually expressed a lot more frustration to me, as far as the B&E’s that are going on,” Crume said. “Some of them have declined even to report them. They just report the loss to their insurance and move on, they’ve become so frustrated with the situation.”
This jibes with a list that Faber gave me of downtown businesses that have been hit in recent weeks, as it contained 14 businesses downtown and in the River Arts District — and Faber said he had learned of three to five more.
Silberman too is sympathetic to the business owners, and he said while a lot of folks complain about tourism, it also “pays for a lot of things” around here.
“The other thing is, these businesses are some people’s whole world,” Silberman said, noting that restaurant and bar profit margins often are “ultra tight,” and those businesses had to struggle to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic.
But he also pointed out that police can’t solve homelessness, addiction, or mental illness. And while he acknowledged that police staffing downtown has shrunk, Silberman said that’s also a complex issue wrapped up in severe shortage of officers, and demand for policing service in other areas of the city that actually have more crime.
If you want to transfer more officers downtown, they have to come from elsewhere in the city. So you could fill downtown with officers …
“But it means you will not have officers on Airport Road or officers in certain areas that are high crime,” Silberman said. “And by high crime, I mean high aggravated assault. High violence. And those neighborhoods are screaming, too, saying, ‘We’re having shootings and deaths in this area. We want more [police support].’ And that more has to come from somewhere, right?”
In 2020, downtown was its own police patrol district, with officers and a bike patrol unit. In all, eight officers were on a given shift.
Today, the district extends farther south and includes Biltmore Village. Two officers per shift cover the entire district, police spokesperson Samantha Booth said.
APD vacancies, small academy classes
Meanwhile, APD’s staffing shortages remain critical. Of 238 sworn officer positions, 64 are vacant, Silberman said. Also, of those 174 officers working, some are still in training and not sworn, and some are on medical leave, pregnant, or out on family or military leave.
“So if I have an incident on the street, there are 142 officers out of 238 that I could call,” Silberman said. “It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s assuming nobody trains or goes on vacation or gets sick.”
I mentioned to Silberman that Dissen and other business owners downtown said they feel like they just don’t see cops much anymore, that the city’s center doesn’t feel as safe.
“I understand why he feels that way, and I’m sorry he does,” Silberman said. “I think Asheville as a city is going through what a lot of other cities are going through right now … which is an increase of crime, and what appears to be a permissive environment.”
The APD is using overtime to keep more cops on the street, and Silberman and Crume both talked about how an internship program that allows street cops to work with Criminal Investigations is paying dividends, as it did in the recent break-ins cases. The department has boosted its capabilities in DNA testing, in-house drug testing, and ballistics, and it has a dedicated gun unit that they said is having strong success, among other initiatives.
As far as the crime and lack of staffing, Silberman said, “You can’t just solve that with money instantly. It’s something that will, without a doubt, take time. And it takes more than money to solve it.”
For instance, the APD’s current academy class has just four candidates enrolled, and it takes close to a year to get them fully trained, certified and on the streets.
“Twelve (candidates) is a good academy,” Silberman said. “In late 2019, we graduated, I think we had 19 in a class. That was a large class and we were over-hired.”
They made an exception for that class because of expected attrition.
After the social unrest in 2020 related to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Asheville saw an exodus of officers, and fewer applications. Silberman acknowledged Asheville has a hard time recruiting “for a host of different reasons, but not the least of which is Asheville is a difficult and sometimes dangerous city, especially compared to other cities in the area.”
“And not that police work isn’t dangerous all around, but the work volume in Asheville is huge, and you are not necessarily well compensated for the work,” he said.
Starting basic salary for police officer trainees is $42,548. After completing the academy and obtaining state certification, pay increases to $45,856. After three years of service, officers advance to senior police officer status and earn $49,9164.00.
Silberman also said there’s a public perception that “the residents of Asheville don’t necessarily want or support their police, and that’s not true.”
Well, in some quarters, that is definitely true, as some locals would like to see the Police Department abolished. That’s another story for another day.
All of this makes policing an unusually tough job, and Asheville also struggles with retention of officers. Still, Silberman said he and other officers aren’t frustrated with their plight.
“Frustrated isn’t the right word,” Silberman said. “A lot of the people that are still here are very personally invested in the department, but more so in the mission.”
As Faber and Dissen work to repair their businesses, that’s good to hear. But they’re still shaken by the January they’ve just lived through.
“Everybody I’ve talked to is just at a loss,” Faber said. “Short of camping out in our restaurants with weapons, we don’t know what to do.”
Cops said video surveillance is invaluable, and restaurants and businesses should “harden” entrances and windows as much as possible. And don’t keep cash on the premises overnight.
In Faber’s case, having video surveillance just kept him awake for two weeks.
“I haven’t slept in going on two weeks – I’m just sitting at home at 4 a.m. watching my cameras,” Faber said. “And this is happening literally right smack dab in the middle of Asheville.”
His exasperation was palpable.
“If you can’t protect business in the middle of downtown, who’s going to want to open things here?”
It’s a fair point.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org