When Meeyoung Lee arrived early one morning to open her tiny Cozy Cafe in the lobby of a downtown Columbia office building, she thought the air conditioning was broken because it was so cold inside.
Then she saw the shattered glass on the floor, but didn't see the cash register, which was gone along with some packs of cigarettes.
Lee, 45, said a burglary was the last thing she expected to experience in a large building, but Howard County police say they're dealing with a rush of such smash-and-grab break-ins this year.
Through May, the county has seen 56 such robberies, compared with 16 during the same period last year, prompting warnings to business owners to be vigilant and take precautions. Police spokesman Pfc. Bryce Buell said the night-time break-ins have occurred all over the county and have involved restaurants, liquor and convenience stores, office buildings and gas stations. He said police have been frustrated in some cases to find that alarms were left off or surveillance cameras poorly aimed or not functioning.
In some cases, only a window or door was smashed and nothing was taken. But in others, like a May 31 break-in at Patuxent Publishing on Little Patuxent Parkway not far from the Cozy Cafe, thieves broke through interior walls, ransacked offices, and stole laptop computers, as well as vending machine cash.
"They tried to break the walls down. We're still re-walling some offices," said Paul Milton, Patuxent's executive editor. The firm, owned by the Tribune newspaper chain that also owns The Sun, publishes the Columbia Flier and Howard County Times.
"It's pretty disconcerting," Milton said. "You never expect something like this to happen at your home or at your work."
The problem from a law enforcement standpoint, Buell said, is that the crimes are hard to prevent and occur quickly.
"Criminals tend to repeat what works," he said.
Buell said police have arrested a man and woman found after two such break-ins in the pre-dawn hours of May 20.
Officers responded to an automatic alarm at 3:40 a.m. that day and found glass smashed at Bea's Beauty Supply on Assateague Road in Jessup. The cash register and a gimbal machine were missing.
About 40 minutes later, officers checking businesses at the Fulton Station shopping center on Route 216 saw a car parked in front of a jewelry store - with a gimbal machine sitting on the sidewalk. An attempt to break into Ledo's Pizza there had been unsuccessful, police said.
Arrested in that case were Raymond Anthony Holmes, 44, and Samantha Paulette Deadwyler, 23, both of Prince George's County.
More break-ins followed, however.
On May 28, just before 2 a.m., someone saw two young men smash the front door of the Ledo Pizza restaurant on Oakland Mills Road, facing Snowden River Parkway. Nothing was taken, and no one was caught.
The morning before the Cozy Cafe break-in, a rear window was smashed with a large rock at the Firestone Tire store across Little Patuxent Parkway from Patuxent Publishing, but again, nothing was taken.
The previous weekend, thieves smashed their way into the Maryland Medical Association offices in the 6800 block Deerpath Road in Dorsey, and made off with a computer.
Lee's small shop is back to normal, but she's still a bit shaken by the robbery, and says she hopes her building management installs some additional security.
"This area is pretty safe, but maybe one day they can come in and do something to me," she said.