CHATHAM – For the fourth time, a shark has been stolen from the downtown Sharks in the Park exhibit.
The shark taken early Saturday morning was returned and a suspect identified. A Chatham summer resident, who lives year-round in New Jersey, reportedly confessed to the theft, and police are waiting to determine if charges will be filed.
On Saturday evening, another attempt was made to take one of the sharks. Surveillance video shows a man removing the Chatham Clothing Bar shark, but immediately replacing it when a companion points out video cameras monitoring the exhibit.
With the popular exhibit set to end on Aug. 18, the Chatham Merchants Association, which organizes Sharks in the Park, is installing additional security measures and assessing how the five-foot painted and decorated sharks can be made more secure next year.
“It's heartbreaking,” Janice Rogers, who organizes the exhibit, said of the thefts.
Of the four sharks stolen this summer, only one has not yet been recovered. A reward has been offered for the return of the shark sponsored by Pine Acres Realty and painted by Tilda Bystrom. A replica of the shark has been installed in the original's place and the artist is painting a new one with the same design (and even offered to paint the high bidder's dog into the scene). A hoodie obscured the features of the thief in surveillance video, but Rogers suspects that “somebody knows where that shark is.”
Security has been an issue for the exhibit since it began several years ago. Each summer a few sharks are taken, but most are recovered, often nearby, after the thieves realize how ungainly they are when still attached to the steel rods that anchor them in the ground. In past years just one stolen shark was never found.
This year's 55 sharks, sponsored by local businesses and organizations and decorated by local artists, started out at Kate Gould Park in mid May. In June, the exhibit made headlines when several young women were captured on video removing one of the sharks and then returning it when they realize that video monitoring cameras were present. A clip of the video showing them cavorting through the park in the early morning hours went viral on social media.
After the sharks were moved to the front lawn of the Eldredge Public Library, another shark was taken in the early morning hours of July 4. Rogers' son happened to see the live video feed and saw several men walking off with one of the sharks, and chased after them. The shark was recovered and a suspect charged in the theft; a magistrate's hearing on the case is scheduled for later this month, according to police.
In the latest incident, Rogers said a library employee noticed one of the shark anchor poles with a plaque identifying the sponsor and artist on its side near the building. Officer Christopher Verdakis responded, and while he was investigating was told that a Jeep Wrangler with New Jersey plates had pulled up to the bank next door and dropped the shark, sponsored by Rebecca Jean and painted by Rebecca Shanahan, on the lawn. Police were able to trace the plate back to a local address, where they interviewed a suspect who matched the description of the person seen taking the shark at about 1:50 a.m. in surveillance video. The man admitted taking the shark, said Chatham Police Lt. Michael Anderson.
Along with the improved lighting, Rogers said tree anchors are being used to better secure the poles on which the sharks are mounted. She noted that video also captured someone trying to remove the 3D wooden shark created by Rich Benson for Cape Cod Colonial Tables, but the person could not lift it out of the ground due to an additional security cable that Benson had attached.
Security measures put in place this year, including more video cameras and warning signs, have helped, Anderson said, as seen by the number of times thefts have been aborted or sharks returned when people realized they were being recorded. But as long as the sharks are displayed outdoors, there's no way to guarantee their security, Anderson said.
“The only way to guarantee their safety is to put them in a more secure environment,” such as indoors, he said. Short of having security on site 24 hours a day, “they're going to be vulnerable.”
Although the CMA board does not meet in the summer, the group plans to continue the exhibit next year with additional security, Rogers said. It's not only popular, drawing thousands of onlookers, but it also raised thousands of dollars for the organization's events and scholarships. The group has discussed putting the sharks in individual shops up and down Main Street, but that would diffuse the impact, and there really isn't a space downtown large enough to accommodate the entire exhibit, she said.
“There's really no place for it that could handle the traffic,” said Rogers.
“The number of people in that exhibit every day is huge,” she said, noting that at any one time, 20 to 50 people may be milling about viewing the sharks. “It's very popular and the feedback is tremendous.”
Security poses some problems; because the sharks are moved from the park to the library lawn, any security measures must be portable. There must also be enough space between the sharks for people to view them from all sides.
“We have some other ideas for next year,” Rogers said, although she declined to go into detail. “We're just going to have to be more cautious as far as security goes.”
As of early this week, bids on the sharks, which can be placed at www.sharksinthepark.net, totaled more than $28,000. The shark sponsored by the Mayflower Shop had the highest bid at $1,850, with several others topping $1,000, including Benson's. The missing Pine Acres Realty shark had a bid of $700. Bidding ends Aug. 18.
Anyone with information on the missing shark can contact the police department's anonymous tip line at 508-945-TTIP (508-945-8847).