Heidi Walker had an uneasy feeling something wasn't right.
Walker, a professional photographer with Heidi Photography, had just finished shooting a wedding at Temple Square when she sensed she was being watched as she walked back to her car.
She drove off and stopped at a downtown business for 10 minutes to buy supplies. She left her camera equipment out of sight inside her car and locked her doors. Later that night, when she went to shoot the reception, she realized her camera, her laptop and all her equipment — totaling about $20,000 — was gone.
"Your mind kind of starts to play tricks on you. 'Where did it go? Did I leave it on the sidewalk at the temple?' I was looking under my car, on the ground. You can't grasp the concept it can be gone," Walker said. "My livelihood is the photography income and to have it pulled out from under you in a matter of minutes … ."
Salt Lake police say Walker's stolen equipment on Wednesday was the latest in a rash of high-end camera equipment burglaries over the past couple of months, mainly affecting professional photographers working in the area around Temple Square. And investigators fear the problem could get worse as the holiday season gets closer.
At least five to eight people have had camera equipment stolen. The majority of victims were people who were taking pictures at Temple Square just prior to being robbed, said Salt Lake Police Sgt. Robin Snyder. At least one other incident was a few blocks away at The Gateway.
The other photographer who was shooting with Walker that day said he, too, noticed someone following him and thought he seemed to be paying close attention to his camera bag and his vehicle. When he stopped a short time later for lunch, he felt so uneasy that he took his equipment inside the restaurant with him.
Walker said a friend has loaned her a camera until she can raise the money to buy a new one so she can continue working. But what hurt even more was the loss of her laptop and her hard drives.
"All the images that I've ever had are gone," she said. "The cameras can be replaced. But the images are gone."
Skip Huntress, with Huntress Photography, had his $6,000 camera stolen out of the trunk of his car in September.
"What I realized is that I had been followed," he said.
After shooting a wedding at Temple Square, Huntress put his camera bag in his trunk and drove to 700 South and 300 West and went inside a photography business for about 10 minutes. When he came out, his camera was gone.
"The only way to describe how you feel, is you look unbelievably into your car and you know your camera is there. It's like you're looking at a ghost. You can't put two and two together," he said. "You tell yourself, 'I know it's here. How come I can't see it?' Then you suddenly realize, 'No way. It's gone!' "
Police believe the burglars are staking out their victims, because they seemingly only target cars with photo equipment, and have left other valuable property untouched. And the cameras they steal are all high-end pieces of equipment.
"There's no doubt in my mind that they had been following me and knew what I had," Walker said.
Local TV stations have also been affected. Video cameras from KSL-TV and KTVX were stolen in recent weeks. Ironically, a KSL reporter had just finished interviewing a local photographer about the same theft issue.
"They knew what they were looking for," said Con Psarras, vice president of news at KSL-TV.
Psarras recalled a ring several years ago in Salt Lake City in which video cameras used by TV stations were targeted. About seven cameras were stolen locally and believed to have been shipped overseas, he said.
Huntress said his vehicle does not have any signs on it that would indicate there might be camera equipment inside. Also, he said he had an iPod in his car when his camera was stolen, but it was not taken.
Now, as "police are taking the steps to resolve the problem," Snyder said, the local photography community wants to spread the word to other photographers to be very careful when taking pictures at the downtown temple.
"If you look at the Salt Lake Temple, there are 100 weddings a day there. That means a hundred photographers a day," Huntress said. "Be aware of your surroundings."
As the holidays draw nearer, there will be lots of people traveling downtown during both the day and night. "This is when (the thefts) start to go up," Snyder said.
Once the camera burglar spots a person with a high-end camera, the thief may be following that person and waiting until they leave their vehicle, even if it's just for 10 minutes, and can quickly break a window or force open a door and steal the camera, Snyder said.72 comments on this story
"I thought I was safe. I was at a busy intersection. It was broad daylight, the middle of the day. I didn't even question it. I'm in a busy parking lot. There are people everywhere," Walker said. "I don't want this to happen to anyone else. I think (the photography community) is a little panicked now. They're starting to get insurance, not leaving their cameras in their cars."
"Take your compact flash cards with you always," Huntress also advised other professional photographers. "At least you've still got the job."