It was around 5:30 in the morning of Nov. 20 when Oscar Spensieri, owner of Oscar’s Plumbing & Rooter Service, received a call from the security company.
The alarm at his business in Van Nuys had been triggered, they told him the door was compromised. Spensieri quickly reviewed the security footage and noticed that one of his trucks was missing. “Please send the police over soon,” he told the security company’s operator.
“Looked like they [thieves] spent between seven to eight minutes inside. Luckily for us, the alarm worked and they probably knew the cops were coming,” said Spensieri.
But, in less than ten minutes, the group of six – believed to include five men and one woman – were able to take a variety of tools that were inside the office.
The first thing the 64-year-old Spensieri saw as soon as he arrived at his business were pieces of metal scattered on the sidewalk and in the middle of the street.
The thieves used the truck to knock down a steel gate and flee.
“They took a lot of copper and brass,” Spensieri found. He said his business specializes in emergency plumbing and he keeps a variety of items on hand in different sizes to be prepared.
“If we get a call from an apartment building with 50 units, they will use larger pipes, so you need more equipment. They grabbed everything,” he said. “Besides the copper, they also stole jackhammers, rotary hammers, power tools.”
Since opening in 1979, he’s managed to grow his business little by little and for all small businesses, the pandemic was challenging enough.
Jenny Alfaro, who has worked for 16 years as the general manager, said it’s hard to get ahead when you’re faced with constant crime. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Am I having a nightmare?’ The business has had four break-ins this year. We want this to stop.”
In April, August and September, the business suffered three burglary attempts. The first and second times, some guys jumped the fence and broke the windows on a couple of trucks that were parked in the lot; there was nothing for them to take, so they left. The third time, they broke a window to get inside the cab of a truck and damaged a sliding door in order to get the tools located in the back of the vehicle. “A surveillance camera was able to capture photos of the suspects who arrived in a van with a sticker on the door that said ‘international church,’” said Alfaro.
During this latest burglary, the windows of three trucks were smashed, they broke into the office, took equipment, hot-wired a truck, damaged the ignition and drove away. A tracker inside the truck helped the police find the vehicle within an hour. It was found parked in a residential area. The authorities missed the thieves by minutes. By the time they arrived, the truck was emptied.
It’s taken an economic toll on the business, Spensieri and his employees. Repair after repair, the bills have added up, and although he is insured, the struggle continues after he files the insurance claims.
“The insurance company starts saying that they will cover this but not that, some tools are covered up to a certain amount of money, or they want a receipt for a screw you bought 20 years ago,” said Spensieri.
“Also, gathering up all this paperwork takes time, the claim could take months, and the business loses hours of work because the trucks are at the mechanic. On top of that, you have to pay the deductible every time and your premium goes up. Now, the estimated cost of loss is between $50,000 to $100,000.”
Oscar’s Plumbing & Rooter Service solely helps people during plumbing emergencies such as problems with hot water and sewage. Its clients range from homes and condos to hospitals and restaurants. This focus helped the business through the pandemic — even though it was difficult for them to find employees during that time. Now, the problem is inflation. “Some of the items went up four times,” indicates Oscar, who is a husband, father of two daughters and has been a plumber since 1977.
Spensieri, who was born in Argentina and raised in New York, works between 60-70 hours a week on his business. He says that he puts a lot of effort into keeping his customers and employees happy by running an honest business. However, when things like this burglary happen, he feels defeated. “You feel that you lost the battle against these guys. It’s really discouraging.” The extra lighting, security cameras, locks and alarm the business had weren’t obstacles for the thieves.
Now, Alfaro — who just came back to work from maternity leave — is worried. “They were able to get in this time, and now they know what is inside the building. We are just afraid that they are going to come back.”
She went back to work a day after the burglary. She saw the messed up gate, broken glass and broken doors. “I felt violated. These people got into our office!”
Alfaro says that she always felt safe going to work and that nothing like this has happened before — now it feels different. “It is more than a monetary loss. This takes a toll on all of us and it shows the times that we are going through right now. They are getting more bold.”
Recently, Spensieri read an article from the Association of Plumbing about a technician who was held at gunpoint in front of a customer’s home in order to take the equipment from his truck. “This is something happening not only to plumbers but electricians and gardeners too. Every business with expensive equipment,” he says.
Just between Nov. 16 and 20, the area around the Van Nuys Airport reported six burglaries, one of them was Oscar’s business, according to the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Crime Mapping website. Four of them happened between 1:00 a.m. and 5:45 a.m.
“This type of crime is going up tremendously in Los Angeles County. You cannot leave your business unattended anymore. We don’t sell luxury, we help people with a service. They need water to be able to go to the bathroom or to use hot water. We wanna be able to do our jobs without fear of being hurt,” expresses Spensieri. He thinks that more police and better laws could improve the situation. Now, he says, he will take more precautions and he is even thinking of hiring a security guard.
The day of the burglary, the company had planned to hold its yearly holiday party and after the break-in, they considered canceling it. But Spensieri said, “No.”
He arrived a little late to the party because he was with the police until 5:00 p.m., but went ahead with the celebration. “It’s hard to see what happened, but my family, my employees and my customers keep me going. We worked hard and we were not going to let them [burglars] take us down.”
If you recognize someone in the photo or if you have any information regarding this incident, contact Van Nuys detectives at (818) 832-0029. Tipsters can also visit www.lacrimestoppers.org/ to provide anonymous web tips.