(WBIR-Lenoir City) Lenoir City Police said officers are trying to track down a thief or thieves who plotted an elaborate scheme, cutting security camera lines and smashing through ceilings and walls to steal thousands of dollars worth of expensive cell phones from a Sprint store.
Sometime between 11 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. Friday, someone broke through the front door of Fiesta Brava, in Lenoir Mills shopping center on Highway 321. The owner said his restaurant was just their starting point.
"You can see here where the frame is bent," said Martin Ayala, the restaurant owner. "Then they came back here to the office, you can see the hole, but they didn't get anything so then they came back here to the back room."
Ayala said the employee-only door was unlocked, but the thief smashed a hole anyway, before moving on to cut the phone and cable lines and then ripping the ceiling insulation.
"I guess they started tearing everything up to make a hole in the walls to try and get in, apparently they couldn't get in so they made a hole in this other wall," said Ayala. "They had to move all of this to get to the wall. They made a hole to crawl in and get to Sprint."
After moving cabinetry, the suspect quickly learned the hole did not lead to Sprint, and instead to Lenoir City Eye Center, three doors down. The thief or thieves continued to smash through the walls to get into Merle Norman and then the Sprint store, their target.
According to a police report, the technology hub, alarm, camera and phone lines were cut and destroyed, and the back part of the business was ransacked. About $12,000 in expensive cell phones were stolen.
Back in September, the Sprint store in Turkey Creek was also targeted. The Knoxville Police Department said thieves used a similar plan, cutting holes in the building next door to break in and steal broken and used cell phones.
"There had been several robberies like that already, like in Turkey Creek and here, one of the other shopping centers, so it's people that are getting familiar with the places," said Ayala.
Ayala said the damage is unsettling, but he's happy he didn't have to close his business.
"That was a good thing, that the mess was in here where people couldn't see it instead of out there in the dining area," said Ayala.
He said this was not the first time someone targeted one of his restaurants.
"We have another business in Crossville, Martinos, and a few months ago one of the girls that works there was robbed at gunpoint," said Ayala. "She was pregnant."
Lenoir City Police said the investigation is ongoing.
Merle Norman did not want to comment on whether anything was stolen, but according to workers at several stores, it appeared Sprint suffered the most damage and property loss.
Firehouse Subs and Courtley Chiropractic were not hit.