Meth driving crime spree in Hot Springs

by Scott Shindledecker
Daily Inter Lake | March 19, 2020 10:07 AM

Even the small town of Hot Springs is not immune from the ravaging effects of dangerous drugs such as methamphetamine.

The town, located in east-central Sanders County, boasts a population of about 550 people.

Those that don’t live there come from near and far for the recuperative hot springs.

But others are there because they think they can make some easy money.

A number of businesses and residences have either been broken into or attempts have been made. In one instance, thieves walked into one location and carted off an ATM machine.

Someone tried to break into a hardware store, but metal bars meant only broken glass, no loot.

“It’s pretty scary managing a business,” Gambrel’s Hardware owner Aaron Beerntsen said. “My personal storage unit was broken into, too.”

Beernsten said what many locals said about the crimes.

“I’m sure it’s local people, drug-related crime,” Beerntsen said.

Hot Springs Police Chief Eric Pfleger, in his position since 2013, said there is nothing new on the investigations into the break-ins.

“We’re still investigating,” he said. “We’re working to try and get people to secure their properties better, keep things locked.

“From the standpoint of protecting property, it’s hard to do,” Pfleger said. “We’ve had a number of car break-ins recently and in every one of them, the vehicle wasn’t locked.”

Many in town wish the police department was bigger, but with a limited tax base, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

“It’d be good to have more officers,” Beerntsen said.

“When I came here in 2013 there were three full-time officers,” Pfleger said. “Now, there’s me, Officer Logan Martin and one part-time officer who is able to work maybe one shift a month.”

Symes Hot Springs Hotel and Mineral Baths, Fergie’s Pub and Grill and PJ’s Café were also targets of thieves.

Locals and law officers agree the biggest problem is meth.

“The meth addicts have picked the Flathead (Valley) and Missoula dry and now they’re targeting us,” Pfleger said.

PJ’s Cafe and Fergie’s Pub & Grill have also been targeted.

At Symes Hot Springs, employee Cindy Emmert said she believes the culprits are people who have worked there in the past.

“They know the ins and outs of the place,” Emmert said. “Someone also stole a set of keys for this place from an employee’s truck, so we’re waiting to see…”

Emmert said she moved to Hot Springs from Columbia Falls in 2002.

“Another place I worked when I moved here had an ATM stolen,” she said. “What are the odds?”

Thieves unbolted the machine from the floor at Symes before hauling it away in a wheelbarrow.

When a new ATM machine is installed at Symes, it will be more secure in a old phone booth.

The hotel has also hired security seven nights a week.

“Due to developments in the ongoing burglary investigations, Hot Springs Police Department does not have information we wish to make public at this time,” Pfleger said. “In the meantime, businesses can implement several basic measures that will help harden the security of their establishments.”

Pfleger recommended doing the following things to slow or prevent break-ins:

• Locking doors to prevent public entry at hours that location is not staffed;

• Do not leave unsecured money at location. Invest in a safe or make deposits/remove money during hours of closure.

• Do not allow ‘unknown’ persons claiming to be ‘inspectors’ or other representatives of outside institutions to access your business secure areas without properly identifying them and confirming they are legit;

• Invest in security cameras and alarm systems and use them always.

“If you have financial equipment such as ATM machines, bolting them down and securing them to the building as the factory designed is critical to prevent a situation where you are simply providing a thief with a container to carry away your profits,” Pfleger said.

“Factors regarding the burglaries to businesses in January and February include failure to implement several of the above recommendations in all cases. Additionally when working with law enforcement tasked with investigating cases, it is critical that crime victims do not disclose information through public media or other venues when instructed not to do so as it can compromise investigations.”