A buzz that swept through Texas in the past seven months was not about summer's sweltering temperatures or a down housing market. It was about crime: As much as $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. [See Map]
While it's most prevalent in Texas, the rise in LBM crime isn't limited to that state. There have been thefts at yards from 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–several of them more than once. Altogether, the LAT estimates that more than 70 separate incidents took place between April and October of this year. 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.
The crime wave got so bad the LAT established a reward for information that might lead to big arrests. Also, in conjunction with Crime Stoppers, the association set up a toll-free number (866-938-TIPS) to collect information about the thefts.
Taking a Double Hit. Laddy Rejcek, manager of Blazek Building Supply's yards in Ennis and Waxahachie, saw both locations hit. The Waxahachie yard was robbed twice. It has since closed. At the Ennis yard, 40 pallets of shingles were stolen along with two flatbed trucks.
"They tried to take four other trucks," Rejcek said of the heists in Ennis. "When they could not get them hotwired, they tore up the entire steering system and wiring in the trucks."
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 downturn, there are things that are more prone to being stolen," Galbraith says.
Economy Builders Supply in Greenville, east of Dallas, was hit three times. In May, Economy lost four flatbed trucks loaded with shingles, according to co-owner Danny Ott. GPS units installed on the trucks helped in their eventual recovery, along with 75% of the shingles. Another 580 bundles of shingles were stolen in September, and a truck and power tools were taken in October, he said.
There's no agreement on who is behind the rash of crimes. During a conference call held in September 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 stepped up the investigation after 1,200 bundles of shingles stolen from Gulf Eagle Supply in Denton were found at Coria's construction business in Dallas. Days before Coria's arrest, five alleged gang members 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 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 call the underground market "mini Home Depots": small, shady storefronts where the back end is stacked with materials. "It starts off with contractors showing up with extra material that can be stolen and then re-sold," Bookhart explains. 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.
Dealers are responding in many ways. "We're trying to make it as difficult as you can with new cameras and security systems," Rejcek says. Blazek has sought to barricade entrances as much as possible without breaking local fire codes. At Foxworth-Galbraith's Sulphur Springs yard, police installed trip wires that are connected to sensors and monitors that can tip the authorities off to further break-ins.
Another dealer is 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.
Ott said Economy is taking more and more precautions with its materials. It now keeps its shingles at the front of the yard after having added lighting. The new location and extra lighting makes it easier for police to monitor the situation. The dealer is also parking vehicles differently each evening, making it harder to get to forklifts.
While Houston police have recovered 18-wheelers of lumber, one of the biggest issues law agencies face is finding out who actually owns the stuff.
"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."