Build it, and they will take the tools

Construction site thefts on the rise

Staff WriterAugust 16, 2005 

A surge in new homes in North Raleigh has led to a boom of a different kind: theft from construction sites.

Tools, wood, household appliances and even Sheetrock have been stolen.

In response, officers are working more closely with contractors, increasing nighttime patrols and checking local pawn shops for stolen goods.

While construction sites have always made an easy target, police say the problem has become more extensive as an average of 15 new homes appear each day in Raleigh.

In 2004, 129 thefts from construction sites were reported, according to Raleigh police. This year, from Jan. 1 through July 17, there were 103 incidents.

Raleigh's approach to construction site theft evolved after officers noticed a pattern.

"I don't know if it was any one particular case," said Officer D.W. Hicks, a crime prevention officer in North Raleigh. Instead it was "the abundance or repetition of cases we were getting in."

Hicks now hosts seminars for contractors on preventing theft.

Custom home builder Mike Houseman went to a recent seminar and said he had learned some lessons the hard way. Now, he pushes subcontractors to pick up leftover materials at the end of the day. And, the minute wallboard goes up, locks are put on the doors.

"Anything thieves can put in a truck will disappear" Houseman said.

One reason is while new homeowners trickle into a subdivision, unit by unit, the construction sites are usually empty at night.

Some stolen goods end up in new homes or they are sold to contractors. Other times, tools and machines find their way to pawn shops.

Raleigh police routinely review pawn shop receipts, trying to match serial numbers for missing tools with numbers entered into computerized logs.

Still, officers say prevention is key.

Police were shocked to learn that at some sites, dozens of keys for one home were handed out to a variety of subcontractors.

Another problem? Employees who quit -- or were fired -- would leave the job with keys to equipment or homes.

"We soon saw there was a need to educate people," Hicks said.

Police now suggest contractors meet with a crime prevention officer before starting new projects. Officers advise builders about security plans along with environmental design precautions, such as increased lighting or video cameras.

Officers in other areas of Wake County are also taking note of the problem. Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison increased patrols of construction sites in the county. And deputies now stop construction trailers and heavy machinery on the road at night to make sure the equipment is not stolen.

But in some cases, even the best efforts ended in theft.

That happened to J.C. Richardson, a Charlotte contractor who builds Starbucks shops. One Friday in October, Richardson left Raleigh after locking his trailer in a well-lit spot near the Brier Creek shopping center. Richardson thought logging chains and titanium locks would be enough.

When he returned to North Raleigh on Monday, the hinges had been broken off, and $10,000 worth of tools was missing.

"Everything was gone," he said.

Since the theft, he hasn't returned to Raleigh.

"I turn down more work in Raleigh than I do any other place," he said.

Staff writer Jennifer Brevorka can be reached at 836-4906 or jbrevork@newsobserver.com.

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