The Day – Scammers and cooking oil: Inside the world of restaurant grease theft

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For those not saturated in the multi-million dollar world of used cooking oil thefts from restaurants, such acts of theft can seem confusing.

In recent years, fat thieves have sent police on a 50-mile chase, claimed to work for ‘Russian bosses’ in New York and have been arrested in connection with cooking oil thefts in more than one city before suing for allegedly injuring an auto repair shop worker while trying to steal diesel fuel.

And that’s right in Connecticut.

In North Carolina in June 2019, a federal grand jury indicted 21 people for conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property and money laundering, for stealing cooking oil in North Carolina, in Virginia and Tennessee and transported it to New Jersey to sell it.

Thieves sell used cooking oil on the black market because it can be converted into biodiesel, an alternative to petroleum diesel that can be used for transportation and heating, and for which demand is growing. Also known as yellow grease, it can be used in soaps and shampoos, pet food, detergents and more.

Grease thefts aren’t new, but a more high-profile theft occurred on June 9, when police said two men from Yonkers and the Bronx were apprehended with around 1,000 gallons of cooking oil in Westport , after fleeing Old Saybrook and hitting a car along the way. .

Around 6 a.m. the next day, an officer saw a suspicious van in the La Llorona restaurant area at Niantic and noticed activity consistent with organized thefts of grease and oil, East Lyme police said. Police have arrested a New Jersey man driving a pickup truck equipped with storage tanks and pumps.

The tax loss from stolen oil varies from restaurant to restaurant, but is often negligible compared to the bottom line, although they may have to deal with the hassle of cleaning up spilled oil.

The far greater financial loss is for cooking oil recovery and recycling companies that serve Connecticut restaurants, such as DAR PRO Solutions, Baker Commodities and Mahoney Environmental Solutions.

Bob Skinner has worked for Baker Commodities for 34 years, from driving to sales to fat theft investigations. Baker Commodities hauls its customers’ used oil to its Billerica, Mass. plant, processes it, and sells it to companies in industries such as animal feed and plastics.

Skinner, who said nothing compares to the levels of theft he’s seen over the past two years, catches at least two to four thieves a week.

The company has cameras in the restaurants, and if there’s movement in front of the oil tank at odd hours, Skinner gets an alert on his phone. He can wake up at 3 a.m. and call the local police, who can respond within minutes and catch the thieves red-handed.

Skinner said the company recovers the oil in most cases. But the perpetrators may have damaged the outer receptacle, which could cost $600 or $700 to replace.

Baker Commodities drivers drive to the restaurant every two to eight weeks, depending on their oil volume, Skinner said. Drivers are still paid even if the theft means they don’t return with a full load, and the cost of drivers is rising due to rising diesel costs.

One of Baker’s customers is Old Saybrook Pizza Palace – whose owner called police to report he had broken up the cooking oil theft that ended up sparking the recent police chase.

Other cooking oil management companies have positions similar to Skinner’s.

DAR PRO, which has offices across the country, has Frank Scoggins — who previously spent 25 years as a narcotics and homicide detective with the Houston Police Department. He now leads the company’s “Grease Police” team.

“It was kind of a joke when we started, which was frustrating, but more people get it now,” Scoggins said in a blog post last August.

The National Renderers Association in 2019 estimated that $75 million of grease is stolen each year.

“Since the price of used cooking oil is so high, there are a lot of thieves out there who want to get in on the act too,” Skinner said. He said the price of used cooking oil traded on the commodity market is around 60 cents a gallon, and he’s never seen it this high before.

Skinner said thieves were selling oil on the New Jersey black market. If someone in a white or unmarked van tries to sell oil to Baker Commodities, they will be told to turn back.

How common is this problem?

Groton and Norwich town police chiefs said they had not received any reports of cooking oil thefts, while Waterford police lieutenant David Ferland said the department had responded to two in the past four years: at Crown Pizza in October 2018 and at The Shack in October 2019.

In a week last January, East Lyme police responded to robberies at Charlie’s Place and Daddy’s Noodle Bar over two days and arrested three people, one from New Haven and two from New York.

Charlie Anastasiou, owner of Charlie’s Place, said Newport Biodiesel — now owned by Mahoney Environmental of Newport, RI — picks up his used cooking oil about once a month and gets about $9 for it. He said the pickup is “a convenience because they pick it up and I don’t have to worry about anything.”

It hasn’t had any thefts since last January, when an officer on patrol spotted suspicious activity. Police said when the officer approached, a man ran into the wooded area behind the restaurant. A State Police K-9 team responded and assisted East Lyme Police in locating the man.

“I think that, combined with organized thefts from stores, is definitely increasing,” East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein said last week. “There is a market for the secondary use of oils as heating oil in some places, so I certainly think the economics and that situation and the price of heating oil and diesel fuel certainly reflect that.”

He said the arrests generally involved people from the New York area and that “these are not random people happening in one place. There is a market for that.”

Last April, Stonington police arrested two people for allegedly stealing used cooking oil from the Sea View Snack Bar in Mystic. The police summary said it was 1:50 a.m. when an officer noticed a white van in the parking lot and “being aware of recent thefts of used cooking oil” turned around and then drove off. stopped the van.

Police arrested Gerard Adonis Marichal, 26, and Juan Francisco Rivas, 44, both of the Bronx. They were both charged with fourth degree larceny, fourth degree conspiracy to commit larceny, third degree criminal trespass and third degree criminal mischief.

Police said the owner of the Sea View Snack Bar confirmed he was missing most of the 200 gallons of used cooking oil.

The same person who was charged with sixth-degree robbery in the June 10 oil theft from Niantic — Jose Borgen-Reyes of Paterson, NJ — was one of two people New London police said the agents had interrupted trying to steal used cooking oil from Tony D’s. in New London at 3:33 a.m. on May 15. Police said Borgen-Reyes was also in possession of crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia and a knife.

At 4:17 a.m. the next morning, New London police said, officers responded to a report of a suspicious vehicle stealing cooking oil from Tony D’s and arrested two Yonkers men, including the one had cocaine.

New London Police shared information about the Tony D incidents in response to a question from The Day last week. But in the region, it’s unclear how many thefts have gone unreported publicly due to the different ways police departments report incidents. Some – like East Lyme and Ledyard – email the media their arrests and include incident summaries with each. But others just list the fees. Cooking oil thieves are often only charged with sixth-degree theft, the same charge typically used for shoplifting.

State Rep. Tami Zawistowski, R-East Granby, introduced a bill in 2019 that would make stealing vegetable oil or animal fat fourth-degree theft. The only person to submit a written testimonial was Terrence Plakias, co-owner of Western Mass. Rendering Co. and the constituent who brought the theft issue to Zawistowski’s attention.

“Many people don’t realize that cooking oil is a precious commodity; last year his company recorded nearly 2,000 known or suspected thefts,” Zawistowski said in a May 2019 press release. Current sanctions are not enough to deter such thefts.”

The bill passed with bipartisan support in the State House and then 36-0 in the Senate, but Governor Ned Lamont vetoed it. He said in his veto message: “A person who steals $35 worth of used vegetable oil should not face four times the prison sentence of a person who steals $35 worth of gasoline. .”

Over the past five years, reports of cooking oil thefts have apparently been more frequent on the west coast of Connecticut, which makes sense given that most of those arrested are from New York, especially Yonkers. .

The manager of Planet Pizza in Norwalk told Hearst Connecticut Media in 2018 that attempted oil thefts happen once or twice a month, and while returned oil only earns about $10 per 100 gallons returned, the Failed attempts often leave a mess.

But the problem is statewide. Sergeant of Windsor is. Derek Leab told the Journal Inquirer in December 2019 that the city had been hit by cooking oil thefts three times in as many weeks. And after the police chase of Old Saybrook, J. Timothy’s Tavern in Plainville tweeted that several oil theft attempts have happened at the restaurant in recent years, and one night the real salvage company arrived as thieves tried to steal the oil.

e.moser@theday.com

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