Oil field thefts rampant in East Texas counties – Longview News

December 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

Oilfield thefts are keeping area sheriff’s offices busy and leaving many East Texas counties with more than a dozen unsolved thefts heading into the new year.

In September, Panola County authorities reported 18 oilfield thefts that resulted in 40 batteries stolen.

Harrison County reported more than 90 batteries had been stolen from oilfields this summer.

“We’re having a rash of them. It’s not a new rash, but it’s a continuing rash,” said Lt. Jay Webb of the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office. Webb said Harrison County investigators get five to eight reports of oilfield thefts per week and are working about 20 open cases.

The big players in Harrison County, Webb said, are Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy, XTO Energy and BP — none of which are immune to thefts.

“Everyone who has a gas or oil business in this regional area has experienced thefts,” he said.

Webb recalled a recent theft at a three-well site off FM 2625.

The three wells are connected and sit about three miles into the woods, with about 300 yards between them.

Thieves cut the lock and stole wiring from one well, which interrupted production at the other two wells. They also took a brass valve weighing about 30 pounds, he said.

The thieves work many jurisdictions, Webb said, making catching them a challenge.

Thieves may steal from an oil field in Harrison County and move on to steal again from oilfields in Panola, Gregg and Rusk counties. Webb added thieves hitting sites in East Texas often will move into Louisiana, specifically Webster Parish.

“An oil field theft is always difficult to solve because of the mobility of them. You got people coming in and stealing something and leaving,” he said. “We’re all sharing the same crooks.”

For thieves who target oilfields, it’s about location and how valuable the materials are, investigators said.

Oilfields often are in remote locations where thieves can come and go undetected.

“These people come in with vehicles that look like the one the oil people use with trailers so people who see them going in and out don’t think anything about it,” said Sgt. Russell Smith, who investigates oilfield thefts for the Rusk County Sheriff’s Department.

Smith’s office investigates two to three thefts per week and has investigated more than 100 cases this year, with about 20 still unsolved.

Thieves often will sell their bounty outside the county from which it was stolen. Smith said thieves believe that mobility makes it less likely they will be caught.

Drug use, he added, drives the thefts.

“Based on the people we’ve arrested, it’s going to be drug related,” Smith said.

Though most of Rusk County’s oilfield thefts occur in the northwest portion of the county in the Laird Hill and Overton communities, he said the targets are widespread, with reports coming from sites located across the county.

“Here lately we’ve been getting hit more in the south,” Smith said.

And though the sites may operate 24/7, Smith said, there are times when a site goes unchecked for days, giving thieves a head start.

Items stolen include pipe, motors, batteries, copper wiring, lift elevators, solar panels and steel, investigators said.

Investigators could not pinpoint a dollar amount lost to thieves, but Smith said losses can vary from a few bucks to thousands.

“In one case, we had $62,000 worth of pipe taken from one location in a matter of a couple nights,” Smith said.

Most commonly, he added, thieves target pipes and batteries that can add up in cost.

Smith said they often will pop open the case and yank the battery out, destroying the computer board in the process.

“If they just cut the wire that would be one thing, but they rip the battery out,” he said. “That battery might only be worth $100, but that board can cost $3,000 to repair.”

More counties are dedicating investigators to pursue oilfield-related thefts.

Lt. Kirk Haddix, spokesman for the Gregg County Sheriff’s Department, said Investigator Eddie Hope has the difficult task of solving the three to seven thefts that occur inside the county each week.

The number of thefts reported weekly makes it hard to determine how many cases Hope’s office has open at any given time, Haddix said.

“(In addition) we continue to work on old cases. We get information from tips, informants, Crime Stoppers, etc.,” he said. “The statute of limitation on felony theft cases is five years and two years for misdemeanor cases. Many of the cases are unsolved, so we continue the investigations until the statute of limitation runs out.”

A working relationship with scrap yard operators and surrounding law enforcement agencies is making it easier to catch oil field bandits, Smith said.

“We try to work closely with surrounding counties. Gregg County has helped me a lot,” he said, adding Gregg County deputies have arrested several suspects in Rusk County thefts.

The materials from oil fields are very valuable, Webb said, adding to the appeal and thieves’ willingness to take the risk.

The highly prized items have led to scrap yard operators changing the way they conduct business and cities implementing ordinances to make vendors take responsibility for what they buy from the public.

Longview officials in 2010 enacted an ordinance requiring vendors pay sellers by check through the mail instead of cash over the counter.

“(We did it) to try to curb some thefts with regard to people stealing precious metals. People are stealing anything they could get copper from,” said Longview city spokesman Shawn Hara.

“Each metal recycling entity shall provide a receipt to the seller on site at the time of the regulated metals transaction, which records the date, time and place of the transaction, a description of the regulated materials involved, and the dollar amount of the transaction,” according to the ordinance.

In addition, the ordinance requires vendors take down the sellers full name, address, driver’s license or ID number, license plate number, a right index fingerprint, as well as a digital photograph or video recording of the transaction.

Counties also are stepping up patrols around oilfields, training deputies to look out for open gates or locks that have been disturbed. But some counties have more than 100 oilfields to monitor and those fields are not in one central location.

“That’s the main problem with these thefts. The locations of where these things are. It’s hard to patrol all these areas. It’s hard to be in all these places,” Haddix said.

That’s why his office encourages operators to buy security or games cameras that can be placed throughout the site.

And Smith said companies should try to conceal their surveillance equipment.

“They even steal the cameras sometimes,” he said.

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