Bethel burglars seek unique target: Toyo stoves

A white stove in a log cabin
A Toyo stove. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Have you ever worried that someone would enter your home and steal your Toyo stove? Maybe you should, if you live in Bethel. Over the past few months, there have been a series of burglaries resulting in stolen stoves. 

At the end of September 2020, Bethel Community Services Foundation was broken into. An employee discovered that the lock on BCSF’s shop was busted, and upon investigation, found a Toyo stove was missing — but nothing else.

Afterward, Executive Director Michelle DeWitt said she tried to think positive thoughts.

“The only hope I could have was that if somebody took an item like that, it was, you know, to keep their family warm or something like that,” DeWitt said. “The second time that we were stolen from, I knew that wasn’t the case.” 

The week after the first theft, a different BCSF building located in the Avenues neighborhood, was the target. Again, only a Toyo stove was taken. This time the nonprofit had prepared, setting up cameras around its buildings, ready to catch a burglar in action. Unfortunately, nature got in the way.

“At the time that the person came in and stole the Toyo stove, there was, like, a heavy dew,” DeWitt said.

Images show a thief exiting the building with a Toyo stove, but dew on the camera lens blurred the person’s face.

“That was very bad luck,” DeWitt said.

Believing it had lost its chance to recover the stolen stoves, BCSF shelled out nearly $5,000 to replace them. After that, DeWitt didn’t hear much about Toyo stoves for a while.  

“Several weeks later, maybe even months later, I finally received a phone call that somebody thought that they had identified one of our stolen Toyos,” DeWitt said.

The call came from Lucas Salzbrun, a Toyo stove dealer and mechanic in Bethel. That week, one of his customers had brought in two Toyos to be repaired, but there was something fishy about them. For example, one of them looked newer, but the oil line was cut.

“It’s something you would do if you were trying to get it out in a hurry,” Salzbrun said.

On top of that, Salzbrun’s customer told him that the stove had been purchased from someone who was not one of the three authorized Toyo stove dealers in town. 

“And so I kind of got to thinking like, ‘Hmm, I wonder if that stove in my shop is, you know, was purchased legitimately?’” Salzbrun said.

BCSF had let him know about their stove thefts a few months before. Putting two and two together, he called DeWitt and asked if she had recorded her Toyo stove’s serial number before it was stolen. She had. 

“And it just happened that this one in my shop matched up with the stolen serial number,” Salzbrun said.

The police arrived and returned the one stove to BCSF, but there was no evidence the other one was stolen. That left Salzbrun with a possibly stolen stove, and an uncomfortable conversation with his customer.

“It was super awkward,” Salzbrun said. “I settled with the best thing to do was just to return the other stove and discontinue our business relationship.”

Bethel Police Chief Richard Simmons said five Toyo stove thefts have been reported since September. Thefts have targeted organizations like BCSF and the Bethel Independent Baptist Church, but also private residences, mostly around the Avenues neighborhood.

Police have made one arrest and are following leads in the other cases. Simmons would not say whether the thefts were related, citing ongoing investigations, but did say thieves often steal one type of commodity over and over again.

“To find a bad guy that finds a niche that they’re comfortable with, that’s not uncommon,” Simmons said. “Because once you specialize a little bit, you get better at it.”

Stealing Toyo stoves is not an easy task: The stoves weigh between 50 and 90 pounds, and they’re not something you can just run in and grab. Grant Fairbanks, another Bethel Toyo stove dealer and mechanic, said it takes at least 15 minutes to detach one from the wall without damaging it.

“It seems like a long time for somebody to be in somebody’s house and not worry about getting caught,” Fairbanks said.

In some ways, however, Toyo stoves are a perfect commodity to steal. They’re an expensive but common necessity. Even if a stolen one is found, you have provide the serial number to prove it’s yours. Salzbrun said most people, understandably, don’t record that.

“You don’t know the serial number of your refrigerator or the serial number of your stovetop,” Salzbrun said. “It’s something you would not suspect somebody is gonna come in and take from you.”

But with the rash of thefts, Simmons recommends everyone record their serial numbers and call police immediately if an appliance is stolen. He asks that neighbors keep a watch out for each other, and take pictures if they see anything.