East L.A. grocer La Blanquita reels from brazen burglary

The thieves who brazenly broke into the beloved La Blanquita grocer and butcher shop late last month seemed to know exactly where they were going.

First, they checked to see whether anyone was inside the meats area and restrooms for early-morning work. It was just after 3 a.m. on Jan. 25, according to authorities and surveillance video of the incident. The thieves seemed to also wait some minutes to see whether an alarm would be triggered.

Once they apparently felt they had a clearing, the group of individuals in hooded sweatshirts went upstairs to the corporate offices of La Blanquita, the well-regarded carnicería and tortillería founded in 1972 by the late Francisco Ramirez. They headed straight to the office of the store’s president, Monica Ramirez, daughter of the founder, and located her safe.

In the footage, the figures move the safe to the top of the building’s staircase, then chuck it down the stairs, badly damaging tile and drywall. Back at ground level, the four figures appear to struggle to get the safe onto the rear of an Infiniti QX80.

With evident effort, they get the safe inside the vehicle, and drive off — all in about one hour.

That safe is now at the center of an investigation by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department that has left the family reeling from its loss. It contained significant amounts of cash but also irreplaceable pictures, documents and mementos belonging to Francisco Ramirez, a native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, who died in 2019 at the age of 64.

This week, Monica Ramirez, who inherited leadership of La Blanquita, is pleading for the public’s help in solving the crime and wonders whether she’ll ever see her father’s personal effects again.

“As we watched it, I was just in shock,” Ramirez said, standing among boxed-up goods and supplies at the store on East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. “I just want my father’s stuff back.”

La Blanquita was in the process of replacing its alarm system, and no automatic alert was triggered, giving the thieves plenty of time to get away.

On Wednesday, the sheriff’s East L.A. Station posted a flier on social media about the incident. Authorities characterized it as sophisticated and suggested the thieves must have had previous awareness of the safe and its location.

“Things like this do happen,” said Sgt. Joseph Bernas of the East L.A. Station. “All we have is this vehicle, those suspects, and if we had something else in another area, other detectives, or stations, or agencies, it could evolve more.”

Enrique Rodriguez, CEO of the company and brother-in-law to Monica, said their business is unique because it has remained family-run in a landscape dominated by chain supermarkets like Northgate and Superior, which target Mexican and Central American consumers. La Blanquita has two other locations, one in El Monte and a sister store called La Princesita.

The family also runs a catering business called Eastside Tacos.

Monica Ramirez, president of La Blanquita, and CEO Enrique Rodriguez, at their family business in East L.A.

(Brian van der Brug / Fontana News Room)

Rodriguez noted the vehicle used in the burglary is not a commonly seen car and said the family is considering the possibility that someone close to them might have been involved.

“What really hurt us was losing her dad’s property, losing original deeds her dad had in Mexico, where we’re still going through a probate process, and now we might lose those properties because we don’t have the documents to justify that they belong to the family,” Rodriguez said.

The cash inside the safe was largely intended to fund La Blanquita’s internal scholarship fund, meant to aid the children and grandchildren of employees who are pursuing higher education, he added.

On a recent morning, customers at the East L.A. store picked up cuts of grilling meat and La Blanquita’s prized flour and corn tortillas. Ramirez and Rodriguez said they replaced broken glass immediately that Tuesday after the break-in, and got right to work on fixing the damage to their staircase.

“We look each other in the eye and say, ‘Now we got to bust our ass. And work harder,’ ” Rodriguez said.

When asked what she thought her late father would say to such a setback, Ramirez allowed herself a laugh: “A lot of bad words. A lot of bad words in Spanish.”

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