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Thefts force store to close

Group from nearby reserve charged

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Miniota convenience store owner Delbert Cole has had enough and will be selling his business following a rash of break and enters.

BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN Enlarge Image

Miniota convenience store owner Delbert Cole has had enough and will be selling his business following a rash of break and enters.

A year-long rash of targeted smash-and-grabs has forced the owners of a rural mom-and-pop convenience store to give up their business after 14 years.

The XTR gas bar and convenience store in Miniota has been a magnet for break-ins that have drained owners Delbert and Pat Cole of at least $20,000 in repairs and lost merchandise, mostly liquor.

All of the break-ins are believed to have been by a group of young people from nearby Birdtail Sioux First Nation, located about 20 kilometres away.

The highway store is a common destination for Birdtail members -- it's a grocery and liquor store, and band members are able to cash band cheques in an effort to keep the money flowing in the local economy.

"We never had any trouble before, very minimal," said Delbert Cole. "We do lots of business with (members of Birdtail Sioux)... but it's not the majority by any means."

But the owners buckled under the stress of regular burglaries in the otherwise quiet Prairie town.

The robberies aren't always the same group of people, but there is a lot of overlap.

The sentencing of a 15-year-old Birdtail Sioux boy was the latest case to come through Brandon provincial court. The teen was sentenced Thursday to two years' probation for two overnight robberies, one in September and another in October of last year.

In the early morning of Sept. 7, a trio of young people, including the 15-year-old, his 13-year-old cousin and a 22-year-old driver, smashed into the store and took off with 32 bottles of liquor.

It took Cole a minute and 49 seconds to get from his home to the store after the alarm company called. He got there before the group's van got away, at which time he cornered the van before the driver rammed his way out. However, Cole was able to identify the driver.

"We knew who it was, and we had people from (Birdtail) telling us who it was, but we could not put a finger on them till that night," Cole said.

Most of the booze, 29 bottles, was left in the ditch as the van took off.

"They bring duffle bags -- they bring hockey bags," he said. "Last summer, it was at least once a month, you wake up at two in the morning, and you hear a vehicle driving around and you think 'Oh man, is it again tonight?' It's very stressful."

The store has a reinforced cage that holds a lot of the hard liquor, but it's been bent. There are bars on the windows and shatter-proof glass on the door, which kept thieves out the last two attempts in March and April, but didn't stop them from causing substantial damage to the door.

"We've fortified it, but I don't know how much it has cost us," Cole said.

Come July, the Coles will hand the keys to a new owner who will close down the location, Cole believes.

The store employs nine, mostly part-time, workers who he said won't be hired by the new owner.

"I'm happy the headaches are over, but this isn't the result that I wanted for the town," he said. "It's a huge loss to the town.

"No one else was knocking at the door, and I had enough... if we hadn't had all the break-ins, I probably would have persevered."

Shoal Lake RCMP Staff Sgt. Bob Chabot said all the suspects believed to be part of the group of young people, ranging in age from 13 to mid-20s, have been charged.

"From the first time they were successful, they probably thought they could do it again and again," Chabot said.

Birdtail Sioux Chief Nelson Kelly Bunn also believes the rash of robberies has come to an end.

"They're not around anymore. My community is A-1 right now, and there's nothing wrong here," Bunn said.

Former Birdtail Sioux chief Ken Chalmers said he is aware of the string of break and enters at the store and hopes their actions won't be reflective of the Birdtail community as a whole.

gbruce@brandonsun.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2014 A18

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