Make Theft a Non-Starter. (Investigations)

By Turnage, Donald R. | Security Management, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Make Theft a Non-Starter. (Investigations)


Turnage, Donald R., Security Management


It all began nearly three years ago in June of 1999--or so we thought. In fact, as the investigation would ultimately reveal, the thefts had been going on for quite some time, but the full extent of the crime wave did not become clear until much later. In the summer of 1999, the events that would lead to the discovery of the magnetic starter thefts were just beginning to unfold.

It was a quiet Monday morning. The superintendent at the Vulcan Materials Company's rock quarry in Cabarrus County, North Carolina--just northeast of Charlotte--arrived at work, as he always did, around 6 a.m. Everything appeared just as it had at the close of business the previous Friday. Yet when the superintendent threw the switch to start the huge electric motors that ran the conveyor belt, nothing happened.

Suspecting an electrical malfunction, he checked the powerhouse where all of the electrical controls were housed. Nine magnetic starters--electric transformers used to start huge electric motors of 100 horsepower and up--had been stolen. Thus began the tale of a crime spree that would take years, many false leads, and extensive cooperation among businesses, associations, and law enforcement to solve.

In the ensuing weeks, similar robberies occurred at various Vulcan aggregate sites (aggregate companies mine rocks and crush them into gravel or sand to sell to builders). All of the incidents were reported to local police or sheriff's departments. In each case, superintendents of the rock quarries were interviewed, a list of the stolen property was taken, and the case was dispatched to an inactive file due to lack of evidence.

One significant problem was that the starters lacked serial numbers or unique markings that would identify them as Vulcan property. Without any witnesses, fingerprints, suspects, CCTV footage, or other leads, the crimes fell to the back of the detectives' heavy caseloads.

By October 1999, ten known break-ins, all similar to the one that occurred at the Vulcan plant in Cabarrus County, had occurred. As Vulcan began investigating the thefts and tightening site security with better locks, the thieves began hitting other aggregate companies as well, including Martin Marietta, Hedrick Industries, Rea Construction Company, and Hanson Aggregates.

Most of the crimes were occurring between Winston-Salem and Asheville in North Carolina. As time went on, asphalt plants, typically located close to aggregate companies for easy transfer of crushed stone, also became targets. Tired of being a repeat victim, Vulcan hired Risk Management Associates (RMA), a security firm in Raleigh that specializes in security consulting and criminal investigations for corporate clients. The author, who works at RMA, was brought in to investigate the case.

The crime spree continued to spread. By January 2000, the break-ins had extended as far east as Raleigh, and reports were coming in of similar break-ins in Virginia and South Carolina. In most of the thefts, an average of four to ten magnetic starters were disappearing. They cost $3,000 to $6,000 apiece to replace. Also stolen in some cases were electrical breakers, costing as much as $10,000 each, along with various electrical and hand tools.

As was the case with Vulcan, the other victimized companies did not have identifying marks or serial numbers on the stolen merchandise. Exacerbating these physical losses was the downtime faced while new starters were ordered and reinstalled--anywhere from one to three days. The total loss in some break-ins exceeded $100,000 in lost equipment and production. On average, the loss per incident was $30,000 to $40,000.

Spreading the word. Since the thefts were occurring in many different jurisdictions, the RMA investigator (the author) decided to publicize the thefts and keep all affected law enforcement agencies informed of what was happening elsewhere. …

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