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The man returned some DVDs at Video Ezy in Greenmeadows, Napier, about 1pm on Friday, with three children in tow.
"He has got to be the dumbest criminal out," Video Ezy owner Kevin Knox said.
"His [child] asked where to find RoboCop. So the manager went to show her and the two younger ones got on a Thomas the Tank Engine ride."
Mr Knox said the man grabbed a counter-top donation box, which happened to be attached to Velcro, accidentally smashing it on the floor before taking another box and getting away in a car - without the children.
As he was a customer, manager Roger Silver pulled up his details, including name and address, while police were called to take fingerprints and video footage.
"The children helped to pick up that money and the older girl said she would get her father to return what he took - it hasn't happened yet."
The man was believed to have got away with a Hawke's Bay SPCA donation box containing about $10 or $20, and smashed a Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind box with $20 or $30 inside. It appeared to be a spur-of-the-moment incident, with embarrassing consequences for the younger children.
They appeared to be visibly shaken and had no option but to walk home. Mr Knox said he was aware of a recent break-in at Napier SPCA, where thieves took about $200 from the till, and felt sorry for the organisation.
"I have read articles where people steal the boxes. I'm stunned by it.
"Why would you do that? I always felt it could happen.
"They had not been [to pick up donations] in a while. I'm surprised at how many people actually donate. You hand them their change and in it goes."
Donations had not been stolen from Video Ezy before, though the shop had been broken into and was the subject of an armed robbery last year.
"To take a donation box, I feel, is very low," Mr Knox said.
It appeared the man's cunning plan hit a speed bump partway through and he panicked, Mr Silver said. "I think his idea was to take them out of the store, hoping I didn't notice they had gone missing but, because one was Velcroed and he dropped it, he realised he was sprung and took off."
Senior Sergeant Nick Dobson of the Eastern District Command Centre said: "It's a sad indictment on society that people see fit to take coins or small amounts of money that you get in donation boxes. It just beggars belief."
A man was taken into police custody yesterday afternoon and is due to appear in Napier District Court today.