CHATHAM – Three giggling women skipping through Kate Gould Park at 1 a.m. Nothing so odd about that. Except that one of them was carrying a five-foot painted shark taken from the Sharks in the Park exhibit.
Video of the escapade was captured by surveillance cameras scattered around the park and shown to a representative of the Chatham Police and a reporter Tuesday. While police are investigating, because the women returned the shark once they realized they were being watched it's unlikely that charges will be sought.
Each year the Chatham Merchants Association's Sharks in the Park exhibit has been on display, one or more of the colorful sharks have been stolen. In all but one case, the sharks have been recovered, often dumped nearby when the thief realizes the metal rods that anchor the sharks are nearly impossible to fit into most vehicles.
Last year, however, a shark painted by artist Heather Labbe was taken and never found; her shark from 2015 received the highest bid in the annual auction for the artwork, so the thieves obviously knew what they were doing, said organizer Janice Rogers.
That incident prompted the group to beef up security for this year's Sharks in the Park display. Rogers said there are six cameras covering all 57 sharks from different angles. “We see every shark,” she noted. The park is lit 24 hours a day.
The system is connected to the internet via WiFi allowing Rogers to monitor the sharks live. The cameras are also wired for sound, and Rogers can broadcast through loudspeakers or trigger a siren if she notices anything suspicious. At night a motion sensor triggers recording. A sign also warns that the sharks are “armed with GPS tracking.” Some of the sharks are also anchored to the ground by thick wire.
The May 25 incident, which occurred between 1:03 and 1:09 a.m., involved three young women who entered the park from the Main Street entrance. One of them pulls the shark created by artist Steve Lyons from the ground and carries it off camera. Another camera picks her up as she carries the shark down the path toward the Chatham Bars Avenue parking lot. Seconds later the three come into frame again, skipping and giggling and examining other sharks. At one point one of them notices signs warning that the premise is under video surveillance. “Those aren't peace signs,” one says, referring to the logo on the sign. They look up at the cameras and realize they are being watched.
A few moments later one of the women comes back into the park with the Steve Lyons shark and they attempt to replace it.
Their placement was just a little off, Rogers said. A day or so later she noticed that the shark was no longer in the same position as it had been and reviewed the tapes, discovering the attempted theft.
“If it wasn't for the cameras, they probably would have taken off with another one,” Rogers said. The system not only allows her to monitor the cameras from her smartphone, she noted, but it allows her to take screenshots to help identify perpetrators. The threat of releasing a photo of a shark thief to the media a few years ago resulted in the return of the stolen art, she added.
Each year the sharks are sold through an online auction, with half the money going to the artist and the other half to the Merchants Association to support its festivals, scholarships and other programs. Some sharks sell for thousands of dollars. Because of the amounts the art garners at auction, the theft of one would probably be considered a felony, according to a police spokesman.
Rogers said new, larger signs warning of the video monitoring are being installed that don't have the logo of the manufacturer, so it will be clearer that the sharks are under constant scrutiny. She also made it clear that she will not hesitate to work with police on future incidents.
“The artists put in a lot of time on these,” she noted.
The video monitors will follow the sharks when they move to the front lawn of the Eldredge Public Library at the end of the month. For more information about the exhibit, visit sharksinthepark.net.