Four rabbits, their necks broken, lay on the floor. the half-eaten carcass of a yellow parakeet floated at the bottom of the piranha fish tank. The entire one-room pet shop reeked of dead goldfish littering the floor.
That was the scene Monday morning as Larry Cauffman, 49, of Bladensburg surveyed the damage left in his pet shop, Larry's Fishbowl, at 4012 Minnesota Ave. NE, after the fourth burglary in four months.
But these have not been routine burglaries. In addition to the vandalism, Cauffman is conviced the thieves are selectively stealing certain kinds of fish and expensive pet shop equipment in order to set up their own business.
When he drove up to his shop Monday and "saw the police cars in front of the shop, I felt like not even stopping," said Cauffman, looking up from mop and pail.
"I thought I had everything secure," said the man who had spent last Sunday bricking up his back window, the entrance thieves used 16 days earlier to break into the store. They stole, among other things, an eight-foot boa constrictor. "I can't take any more," fretted Cauffman.
Sometime between last Saturday night and Monday morning, burglars found another way into the store. They forced open the steel door in the basement and made off with seven large fish tanks, five piranhas, 100 guppies, 16 large tropicl fish and an undeterminded amount of fish food and aquarium supplies, according to D.C. police.
But before the thieves left, they also killed four of the store's seven brown and white rabbits, fed six parakeets to a tankful of flesh-eating piranhas and smashed a tank containing goldfish, spilling them onto the floor to die.
Cauffman's business is one of about 20 along the nondescript block between Benning Road and Grant Street near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station. Businessmen in the block say they are no strangers to break-ins and robberies. b
"This is a real crime area," said Edward Gills, who runs a drycleaners in a small 11-shop mall across the street.
Describing police patrols in the area as "sorry," the drycleaner said, "Whenever there is a break-in, they send police in for a day or two. Then they disappear."
Jimmy's Variety store next door was burglarized and the nearby Philly Steak and Hoagie Shop was robbed just last week. The owner of a used furniture store three doors from Larry's Fishbowl said he had had four break-ins since January, but had lost no merchandise.
"We've been plagued with robberies, thefts and burglaries" along the entire Minnesota Avenue business corridor acknowledged Deputy Chief Theodore Carr, commander of the 6th police district.
The crime rate for the immediate area has doubled since last year, according to police figures, with 44 burglaries and robberies reported in the first nine months of this year compared to 22 for the same period last year.
Carr disputes the merchants' claims of poor police protection. He said he has assigned six officers dressed in "old clothes" to patrol the commercial district from East Capitol Street to The Metro Station during the day and evening. Additional police cars patrol at night, he said.
Many of the small shops are vulnerable because owners, like Cauffman, lack burglar alarms, the chief said.
Chauffman moved into his shop last May after fixing it up at night when he came from working at his regular job as an air-conditioning contractor.
Burglars started breaking into the the place three weeks later. The first time, they broke in the back door and walked away with $1,200 in merchandise including several piranhas valued at $30 each, a number of $60 power pumps for large aquariums and a half dozen tanks. He installed steel bars at the back door.
Then in July, thieves smashed the front window and seize two empty fish tanks. The front windows are now barred.
Earlier this month, thieves not only took 24 piranhas, 10 other large fish and the boa constrictor, but also let out most of the rabbits in the store. Fifteen of them died after eating rat poison. Fifty white mice were also released and have never been found, Cauffman said.
Cauffman suspects the burglars are trying to set up their own fish supply store. "They know what they are taking because they only take the expensive things" like the piranhas, Oscars and Red Devils which sell for up to $30 each.
They have also taken a large supply of fish tanks, pumps, fish nets, filters, fish tank tops and lights. "They just won't leave me alone," he said.
Cauffman said he now needs a small-business loan to remain open because he has no more savings to spend to replenish his stock. "I don't have any more tops and lights," he said. "I don't have any more money. I spent it all the last time.