Valdosta Daily Times

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January 30, 2013

Cardboard, dirt, grease — trash is treasure to thieves

NAPLES, Fla. — Turns out that saying about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure is pretty accurate — criminals who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty are now targeting dirt, cardboard, even cooking grease.

“All of these things picked up over the last four or five years during the recession,” said Lt. John Morrisseau of the Collier County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office’s criminal investigations division. “We started seeing more of these odd thefts.”

Earlier this month in Collier County, detectives began investigating the theft of 50 to 60 truckloads of dirt from a property in Golden Gate Estates. Days later, they arrested two Miami-Dade County men accused of stealing three cardboard bales from a Target store on Pine Ridge Road.

And in Lee County, detectives are investigating the theft of a 30-foot tall, 100-year-old Southern red cedar tree worth an estimated $3,000. The tree was apparently cut down sometime in mid-January from a property in Bonita Springs.

“What it comes down to is people are pretty good at figuring out how to make money,” Morrisseau said.

Cardboard in particular is an easy target, deputies say. A bale can be recycled for around $300, making it a lucrative item but also increasing the penalty for stealing it to felony grand theft.

“When they steal it, it’s already packaged for them and ready to go,” Morrisseau said

Dirt, on the other hand, is harder to steal since it requires equipment necessary to load it and haul enough off to be profitable. A ton of fill dirt sells anywhere from $2 to $5, with a dump truck holding about 20 tons, said Lee Gates, an estimator with the Golden Gate business Florida Dirt Service.

“The term ’dirt cheap’ applies, but it isn’t something that doesn’t have a cost,” he said. “Stealing a lot of it without any kind of heavy equipment and not being detected sounds like you must have your stuff together to pull off something like that.”

But in 2007, a Golden Gate man did just that. Mehrl Stuhl III was accused of stealing hundreds of truckloads of dirt from three construction sites in Golden Gate Estates and was ordered to pay one property owner $11,500 after he pleaded no contest to grand theft in 2008.

“The guy started almost like a business where he found a vacant area out in the Estates and had dump trucks that came to his site and backhoes getting the dirt and selling them to different developments that needed truckloads of fill dirt,” Morrisseau said.

Even old cooking oil from fast-food and other restaurants can make a buck. In 2010, deputies caught two Miami-Dade County men who stole 250 gallons of grease -- valued at $500 -- from a Long John Silver’s and a Wendy’s in East Naples.

Those thefts still happen from time to time, but it’s not something law enforcement encounters regularly, said Lt. Larry King, a spokesman for the Lee County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office.

“You see it, but it doesn’t happen on a weekly basis or monthly, for that matter,” King said. “Usually, it’s an organized group, especially when you get into cooking oil.”

For the most part, officials say thieves still target the more obvious valuables like jewelry and electronics, although some criminals tend to be more creative with what they steal.

“It all just depends on the trends -- we saw thefts of copper when there was pretty good money for it,” Morrisseau said. “Again, all these things are just different ways to make money. There’s almost always a buyer in whatever you take.”

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