LADSON — When Chip Knight heard early on March 9 that thieves had again struck his 24-hour car wash, it wasn’t a complete surprise.
Surveillance video captured a man using a sledgehammer to bash a safe holding the coins and cash that motorists deposit for the Rain-X wash at Clean and Cruise. It was the same crude method employed by others who have considered the business a grab bag of loose change since Knight built it in 2004.
For seven minutes, the man in a hooded sweat shirt pried at the machinery in the 3600 block of Ladson Road.
Unbeknownst to the thief, someone had seen him. Dorchester County sheriff’s deputies pulled up with drawn guns; his hands were still reaching for the money hopper.
What struck Knight was the man’s identity — he was the same person deputies arrested in a similar episode last spring and in others elsewhere countywide.
Scott Thomas Murray, 32, of Summerville, was out on bail and going through drug court, a strict regimen for addicts charged with nonviolent crimes. It gives them a chance to clean up, get a job and make the charge go away.
Knight said those second chances threaten a livelihood that supports his wife and 11-year-old son.
Knight figures the thief did $11,000 in damage to his car wash in search of a few hundred dollars in change.
“The pollen season is the time car wash owners make money, but my money is going to repairs,” he said. “It’s tough enough to run a business in this economic climate.”
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said drug court, which started in 2010, is no easy street. Participants who flunk out are promptly locked up, he said.
Though he would not comment on Murray’s case, Pascoe said defendants who commit similar crimes don’t get any breaks from his office.
“Some don’t go through the program because it’s so rigorous,” he said. “When you put someone in drug court, you’re not doing them a favor.”
Murray remains jailed on charges of safecracking and possessing tools capable of use in a crime. Burglary at car washes, ice machines and other businesses with outdoor safes is not a new problem. For Knight, who owns two car washes in Ladson and Summerville, the telltale signs of break-in attempts are dings from a sledgehammer on the safes’ metal housing.
‘Tired of it’
Murray was first arrested in such a case in July 2011, after the owner of a Twice the Ice vending machine on West Butternut Road near Summerville found coins strewn about, according to an incident report. About $45 was missing, but $1,000 in damage was done. He later pleaded guilty to malicious injury to personal property.
Last April, the Sheriff’s Office said Murray broke into eight coin safes at Knight’s business and took about $200. Damage was estimated at nearly $3,000.
The business saw four more break-ins last year. Deputies stepped up their patrols, but the problem persisted.
“They’re not going on all the time,” Chief Deputy Sam Richardson said. “We’ll have them for a period. We’ll make arrests, and they’ll stop.”
Twice during the week before Knight’s break-in this month, Ralph Massenburg said his Froggy’s car wash on North Main Street near Summerville was struck. Investigators looked to tie Murray to those cases.
For Massenburg, who also owns five ice machines, it was the last straw. He plans to focus on operating the winery he recently opened near Walterboro.
“If I can get these people to stay in jail for a while, I’ll have a chance to sell my places,” Massenburg said. “I’m tired of it. I quit.”
After Murray was arrested March 9, he told jailers he was suicidal. He later was hospitalized because doctors said he had overdosed on drugs, according to a report.
Pascoe, whose office helps operate the county’s drug court, said participants like Murray are routinely subjected to drug testing, but he declined to say whether Murray had been following the requirements.
The state-funded program accepts only nonviolent offenders whose alleged crimes are thought to have been committed to feed their addictions. It takes at least 18 months to complete, Pascoe said.
“At least you know they’re getting supervision every week in this program,” he said.
Mark Leiendecker, the county’s chief public defender whose officer represents Murray, said Murray went through the same process that everyone else goes through. His nonviolent charges made him an eligible candidate for drug court.
“It’s counseling, drug screening and treatments that extend for months or years before a client successfully kicks the habit,” he said. Those clients can have their charges expunged, Leiendecker said, but they are not absolved from paying for any damage their alleged actions might have caused.
Knight said he doesn’t expect any help to cover the thousands of dollars in damage done to his business. The most he has seen from Murray, he said, is a check for $64.