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Thief swipes $50,000 tattoo blaster from Westlake nonprofit clinic

March 27, 2010 |  4:26 pm
It wasn’t just any burglary.

The crime that struck Sunrise Community Outreach early Saturday was more like a blow to the heart. The thief took the $50,000 tattoo-removal machine central to the group’s mission: removing tattoos from former gang members anxious to erase their pasts.

“It’s devastating. Now we can’t do our thing,” said Rosemarie Ashamalla, executive director of the small nonprofit based in the Westlake area of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles police said they got the burglary call at Friday morning, after the group’s receptionist arrived to find the front window smashed at Sunrise’s second-floor clinic.

Tattooremoval2 At first, it didn’t occur to her to check whether the clinic’s cosmetic-laser machine was still in place. After all, the machine is heavy and mounted on rollers, more like furniture than medical equipment.

But when she walked to the back room, it was empty. The machine was gone. Police investigators later interviewed a passerby who saw someone roll it away around 1 a.m., said Capt. Steve Ruiz of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart station. “They were pushing a large device,” Ruiz said.

Police are continuing their investigation. But Ashamalla said she doesn’t have much hope.

The organization is probably out of business “unless something fantastic happens,” she said.

Ashamalla said the machine was not insured. She said that she tried to insure it, but that Sunrise’s nonprofit status was an impediment. A used version in today’s market might cost $25,000, she said, far beyond the group’s meager resources.
With the loss of the machine, “all that’s here is a broken window and an empty room,” she said.

Gang members, prostitutes and other underworld denizens in Los Angeles often get their tattoos and a young age, marks of ill-conceived loyalty that later hinder them when they try to get jobs and change their lives.

Low-cost tattoo removal services are in short supply in Los Angeles, Ashamalla said.

Ashamalla said she founded Sunrise about a decade ago using a grant from the organization QueensCare that recently dried up. Grants and payments from clients support provide about $100,000 yearly for Ashamalla’s and her assistant’s salaries and for contracts with nurses and a supervising physician.

Sunrise has provided tattoo-removal for about 200 people a year. Clients scheduled eight to 10 sessions with the now-stolen machine, which was used to beam a laser beneath their skin to break up the molecules of tattoo ink. The clients pay a low fee on a sliding scale. Most are referred by juvenile detention, police or parole officials or by gang-intervention groups, Ashamalla said.

Ashamalla said she doesn’t know why anyone would take the highly specialized Palomar Q-Yag 5 machine. “This is not something you take to a local pawnbroker,” she said, adding that she suspects the thief had a prearranged buyer.

In the meantime, the city has one fewer provider of low-cost tattoo removals.

“We were expecting 30 people” the day of the theft, Ashamalla said. “Our patients are angry. They say, ‘Who could have done this?' ”

-- Jill Leovy

Top Photo: A client has a tattoo removed at Sunrise Community Outreach. Bottom Photo: Palomar Q-Yag 5 tattoo-removal device. Credit: Sunrise Community Outreach