Authorities said Tuesday they have cracked a theft ring that capitalized on the building boom by stealing millions of dollars in construction equipment from sites across Southern California and the West.
The arrests come as police and the building industry are struggling to deal with a rash of burglaries from construction sites.
A building trade industry study found that pieces of equipment stolen from Southern California building sites jumped from 427 in 2000 to nearly 1,000 last year. And 2005 is shaping up to be a record year, prompting some contractors to place surveillance cameras on their sites and hire private security guards -- at costs sure to be passed along to new home buyers.
In addition to construction sites, bandits are also hitting tool rental stores.
"I've been in this business for 35 years and I've never seen the problems we're currently having," said Jim Paholski, general manager of Johnson Rental Services in Riverside, which rents construction equipment to contractors throughout the fast-growing Inland Empire.
Paholski said his company had 14 pieces of equipment stolen last year from various construction sites in the region and was able to recover all but two.
"Before this, if you had one or two a year, it was a lot," he said. "It's just getting worse."
The ring that investigators say they have cracked was based in Norwalk and operated for three years, officials said during a news conference, where they displayed some of the $3.5 million in property allegedly stolen by the crime ring and seized during a four-month investigation.
Items included lawnmowers, generators, weed whackers, nail guns, tile saws, soil compactors and six vans and trucks. About a third of the 25,700 stolen items have been returned to their owners.
Victims were contractors, landscapers and equipment rental companies in nine states, including Arizona and Colorado, authorities said.
"Construction starts and remodels are at an all-time high," Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks said. "Many of these locations are in remote areas. Rental yards are very often in commercial areas that are not properly monitored. It makes a prime target for thieves."
More than 20 people have been arrested in connection with the case and 12 have been charged. Among them is alleged ringleader Guillermo "Don Guillermo" Cazarez of Norwalk, who was charged with burglary, conspiracy and receiving stolen property. Cazarez is free on $100,000 bail. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
"This was an organized, very sophisticated criminal enterprise ... this was a family-run operation," Brooks said. "It involved local burglary teams that were well supervised and had military precision. Four major fencing operations, nine storage facilities. We believe a good amount of property went south of the border to Mexico and could have been shipped anywhere in the world. Smaller items of property, hand tools, were probably disposed of at swap meets here in the Southwest."
Capt. Gary Pentis of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department said ring members would case out potential targets during the day and the robberies, mostly of locked storage containers on construction sites, would be carried out after nightfall by teams of four to six people.
The stolen property would be loaded into a cargo van or panel truck and taken to a storage yard in Norwalk, Paramount or Huntington Park.
"It was like they had a shopping list," Pentis said. "They only took quality brands of generators, power saws, hand tools, pumps, rototillers and concrete-cutting equipment."
Some construction sites were hit twice -- with the ring stealing both the original item and its replacement, authorities said.
While this ring targeted equipment, authorities said other thieves have also focused on building materials such as lumber, plumbing, drywall and carpeting. This has prompted builders to fence in sites, add security cameras and, in some cases, hire guards.
But construction equipment appears to be the most popular target for thieves -- in part because it is easy to grab and resell.
In the first three months of this year, 186 pieces of equipment were stolen from area construction sites, according to the Crime Prevention Program of Southern California, an industry group that tracks construction equipment theft. Statewide, the figure is 293.
Many of the thefts go unreported because builders don't want their insurance rates to rise, said Julie Senter, a spokeswoman for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California.
Nationwide, the value of equipment stolen each year ranges from $300 million to $1 billion, according to the National Equipment Register, another group that tracks thefts. It received 4,973 theft reports in 2004, with most of the crimes occurring in Texas, North Carolina and California.