Sites Are Prime Crime Targets

February 9, 2007
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If the building trades class at the Newaygo County Career-Tech Center in Fremont could finish its class project — a Habitat for Humanity house — by Dec. 5, the family purchasing the home would be eligible for a $12,500 discount on their mortgage.

Two weeks out, the class had finished running and soldering all the copper piping into place going into the weekend. On the following Monday, the students were to begin installing fixtures, appliances and the finishing touches on the home.

But that wasn’t how it worked out.

Sometime over that weekend, thieves broke the window out of a door and let themselves in. They stole all the unused pipe and fittings, tools and pipe cutters, then went down into the crawl space and removed all the recently installed piping.

The class finished the house by its deadline, but not without learning a valuable lesson about the construction industry.

“When copper is up in price, thieves are willing to go that extra mile to steal it,” said instructor Larry Herin, noting a similar incident at a nearby retirement home construction site. Although it has since declined, copper was trading at record prices through most of 2006, topping out at $4 per pound in May and leveling off at over $3.

This is what Michael Kelly, president of Wolverine Building Group in Grand Rapids, calls “stripping a building,” a practice in which thieves remove all the wiring and piping from walls for its salvage value. How this is accomplished is somewhat of a mystery, as local scrap yards maintain a close relationship with their industry partners. When the Newaygo house was stripped, instructors alerted every scrap yard in the region, as is common practice.

“We work with the community. If somebody comes in with something of value, like 20-foot running lengths or some special part, we’ll catch them,” said Rick Hosford of Wolverine Scrap Metal Corp. in Grand Rapids, which is not connected to the construction firm. “When metal is up (in price), we know there is more of that going on.”

In many cases, the salvage yard works much like a pawn shop, collecting identification and records in order to track sellers. According to Hosford, the most common cases involve specialty industrial parts, not construction materials. Generally, yards turn away suspicious metal.

“That might be why you don’t see as much of that, because the scrap yards are too bright and honest to take it,” said Bill Schoonveld, president of Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. in Grand Rapids. A more common scenario, he said, is to steal unused construction materials from sites and then resell them to unscrupulous contractors.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of other things to steal on construction sites besides building materials: power tools, ladders, generators, torches, appliances, even computers. Schoonveld recalled a situation in the early 1990s when thieves used his company’s roofing Bobcat to load up gang boxes full of equipment onto a truck, and then hooked up the company’s Bobcat trailer and stole the Bobcat, too.

“But I still find it remarkable how little theft there is on construction sites in this area compared to other parts of the country,” said Schoonveld. “Not that it never happens here, but it’s not as much of a concern.”

Lt. Roger Parent of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department said that, historically, construction sites are prime targets for thieves.

“We know they are targeted,” he said. “Those people in the business know the security risk of leaving equipment on site. Even if a house has its key locks in, they know that the door can be kicked in or a window broken.

This is a particular nuisance in areas such as Gaines Township, Caledonia or northern Kent County near Newaygo and Muskegon — anywhere there is a large degree of construction and few neighbors, such as a housing development rising from a remote 100-acre field. During the housing boom, it became such a concern that the sheriff’s department placed hidden video cameras and alarms on site to catch thieves in the act.

“Sometimes these are inside jobs or false insurance claims,” Parent said. “But we believe the majority of calls are legitimate and somebody is out there stealing from sites.”

Oftentimes, cross-county patterns of larceny emerge, he said, with similar incidents occurring throughout West Michigan.

As for preventive measures, Parent suggested engravings or other identifying markings to help track down tools or other equipment that ends up at pawn shops or fencing channels. Alarms are often unreliable, he said, citing a case of a housing development theft in which an alarm sounded until the following morning, when a neighbor finally heard it while getting his morning paper. He said the best security measure is to remove tools and other temptations from the site.

And for large construction sites, where it is impractical to remove equipment, Parent admits that law enforcement will not be much help securing the site.

“When you have multiple construction crews at any time, working from early in the morning to late at night, people coming and going, it’s very hard to understand who may be a criminal element in that,” he said.

Wolverine’s Kelly called it the “dirty little lie in the industry.”

“It happens quite frequently and it’s tough to guard against,” he said. “They can be there on a Saturday night and most people won’t even know they’re in the building.”

Kelly makes it a practice to periodically visit sites on weekends and at night, and his superintendents and foremen do the same.

Jim Conner, West Michigan regional manager for Granger Construction, noted that the most common trespassers on construction sites are not thieves, but children and teenagers.

“Kids get in and mess around but don’t really do much,” he said. “What you worry about is how they always want to climb water towers and such. So you take preventative measures against that.”

The JW Marriott hotel was one of the few recent local construction projects to employ a night watchman, in part because of its high-profile, even tempting, position in downtown Grand Rapids.

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