By Andy Carlo The buzz around Texas this summer hasn't been so much about sweltering temperatures or a down housing market. It's been about crime: more than $6 million worth of goods stolen from lumberyards and roofing distribution locations across the Lone Star State.
Dating back to last April, a crime wave has left dealers and distributors scratching their heads as loads of shingles, lumber and, in some cases, vehicles have been lifted. According to the Lumbermen's Association of Texas & Louisiana (LAT), its members have lost as much as $4 million in inventory, while the North Texas Roofing Contractors Association (NTRCA) places its members' losses at more than $2 million.
The rise in LBM crime is not limited to just Texas, though. There have been instances stretching through Oklahoma to Atlanta and as far north as the Buffalo, N.Y., market.
Within Texas, industry estimates have placed ABC Supply Co.'s loss at over $1 million while McCoy's Building Supply, the San Marcos-based giant, has witnessed seven of its locations robbed a total of eight times. Altogether, the LAT approximates that as many as 63 separate incidents have taken place between April and September. A chain and padlock on the gate just won't cut it anymore.
"These are pros. They know what they are doing," said the director of loss prevention for a major Texas dealer that wished to remain anonymous.
Taking a Double Hit
Laddy Rejcek, manager of Blazek Building Supply's two yards in Ennis and Waxahachie, has seen both locations hit; the latter was broken into twice. At the Ennis yard, 40 pallets of shingles were stolen along with two flatbed trucks.
"They tried to take four other trucks," Rejcek told ProSales. "When they could not get them hotwired, they tore up the entire steering system and wiring in the trucks." Thanks to the watchful eye of a local resident, the two trucks were identified after being dumped on the side of a local road.
Similar stories of vehicle theft are spreading throughout Texas. Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber Co. has seen locations in Nolanville, Sulphur Springs, Van Alstyne, and Waco broken into with more than $70,000 in materials stolen, including roofing and siding materials along with several trucks, including flatbeds.
"If they couldn't get through the gate, they drove right through the fence," says Ted Galbraith, executive vice president of Foxworth-Galbraith.
At Nolanville, the culprits didn't stop with materials: they also loaded up on about $2,700 worth of power tools."I suspect in every down turn, there are things that are more prone to being stolen," Galbraith says.
There's no agreement on who is behind the rash of crimes. During a conference call this morning hosted by the NTRCA, Texas leaders trying to get to the root of the problem attributed the crime wave to Hondurans, Cubans, and even a Palestinian gang connected to the Islamist political group Hamas.
Fueling the Underground Economy
On July 19, Denton police arrested Jose Coria, who is believed to have led a Honduran theft ring. More than $362,000 in cash was found in Coria's home along with semi-automatic pistols, according to a report by the Denton Record-Chronicle newspaper.
Police kicked the investigation into high gear after 1,200 bundles of shingles stolen from Gulf Eagle Supply in Denton were found at Coria's construction business in Dallas. Just days before Coria's arrest, five alleged members of his gang were arrested.
"It's an underground economy," says Sgt. Ron Bookhart of the cargo theft unit in the Houston Police Department's major offenders division. Bookhart's team has made eight arrests since June. "We've done quite a bit of work in this area and shut down a lot of activity," he says.
Houston Police now call the underground market "mini Home Depots": small, shady storefronts that end up hosting an entire back end stacked with materials. "It starts off with contractors showing up with extra material that can be stolen and then re-sold," Bookhart explains. "Then they go out and start stealing more materials that can be re-sold."
The police official points to Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, along with their devastation, as catalysts to the crime explosion because they created a steady need for construction materials.
Rejcek of Blazek Building Supply agrees and says the materials are being pipelined east to Louisiana and south to Galveston.
Outside Texas, police also are busy.
On Sept. 10, two suspects were apprehended, one tasered, by Niagara County sheriff's deputies after attempting to steal $600 worth of shingles from an 84 Lumber location in Wheatfield, N.Y.
"We are certainly seeing these types of crimes being committed with more and more people out of work," Steven Preisch, Niagara County chief deputy of uniform operations, told ProSales. But Preisch adds that he has not seen a spike in yard robberies as much as there have been thefts from job sites.
"We're trying to make it as difficult as you can with new cameras and security systems," Rejcek says. Blazek has gone so far as to barricade entrances as much as possible without breaking local fire codes. At Foxworth-Galbraith's Sulphur Springs yard, local police installed trip wires that are connected to sensors and monitors that can tip the authorities off to further break-ins.
Another dealer said it is completely retooling its entire security system. That means meeting with manufacturers, which have also been hit, to better identify materials prior to being stolen. Identification on materials, in some cases, has helped in their return when found by police.
Houston police have recovered full 18-wheelers of lumber, but one of the biggest issues law agencies are facing is finding out who the materials actually belong to. "It's hard finding someone that is interested enough in pursuing these thefts at times," Bookhart says. "You can't do anything without a complainant."
The NTRCA will host another meeting in DeSoto, Texas, on Sept. 26 with the North Texas Crime Commission in hopes of creating a special committee that will work in conjunction with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The LAT is working with that agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Texas Rangers in hopes of a more widespread resolution for its members. A reward is also being established for the capture and conviction of any gang leaders connected to the thefts.
"I don't think anyone recognizes the magnitude of these crimes in your industry," Jim Hughes, a board member of the North Texas Crime Commission, said at this morning's conference call.