He had the look. The man wore an orange vest, drove around in a white pickup truck with cones in the back and carried a foot-long "key" for the purpose at hand.
That's how Inland Empire investigators allege 45-year-old Brian Burian stole dozens of fire hydrants, cutting them into pieces and then selling them as scrap metal.
Police said his luck ran out this week, when Mike Hurst, an 11-year veteran of the West Valley Water District, saw Burian driving on a south Rialto street. Hurst had been looking for the vehicle after an encounter weeks before, and saw holes where hydrants had been. This time, the 34-year-old Hurst decided to conduct a stakeout, following the pickup to a parking lot gas station and then to a home in Rubidoux, west of Riverside. He called a deputy who specialized in scrap metal theft.
The next morning, on Wednesday, San Bernardino County deputies arrested Burian on suspicion of shutting off the water from fire hydrants using a large "valve key" and hauling away the 80- to 100-pound fixtures in Riverside and San Bernardino neighborhoods.
"I've been doing this for 30 years and I've never seen this," said Dave Reading, a supervisor with the Jurupa Community Service District, which lost 16 hydrants. "Nothing this bold and brazen, in broad daylight. He had the white truck, orange cones in it, the vest. He looked almost official."
The theft of metal, including copper wiring, brass and bronze, has long been a nationwide problem — not especially surprising during a prolonged economic slump. Thieves have plundered foreclosed homes, empty businesses and vacated construction sites. But taking entire fire hydrants is unusual.
When hydrants are lost, it's usually because a car plowed into one. It will cost as much as $1,800 to replace each of the fixtures — some of which had to be special-ordered because water districts don't usually see a need to keep a stockpile.
A state law passed in 2008 made it a felony for recycling yards to buy stolen scrap metal. Recyclers are required to wait three days before paying up. That's why investigators say Burian allegedly cut the hydrants into small pieces, to make them unrecognizable.
Hurst said the thefts had started in the area covered by the West Valley district about two months ago. A few customers reported seeing the middle-aged man and the pickup truck, he said. Several years ago, he said the stealing of scrap metal was sky-high because it was commanding about $5 a pound. Prices have since plummeted. Burian was allegedly selling scrap metal for about $1.60 a pound. Officials said he hit at least 45 hydrants, taking either the whole fixture or parts.
Tom Crowley, assistant general manager for the West Valley district, estimates that the company and its water customers lost at least $50,000.
"We'd never seen anything like this," he said. "Metal theft is all around us. But this many, in such a short amount of time, shocked us. This guy was willing to spend the time not only to take a hydrant, but to cut it into small pieces."
Crowley said that in the case of a 100-pound hydrant, the thief would have cut off about 20 to 30 pounds of brass fittings on the top and sides to sell for scrap metal, essentially junking the rest. He might have been getting close to $50 per hydrant, assuming he sold off about 30 pounds of it, he said.
Horst, of the Jurupa district, said they began to see missing hydrants about 10 days ago. He said the thefts are not only costly but can spell serious trouble if a fire breaks out in a neighborhood with a suddenly missing hydrant.
"That can be really compromising during a fire situation and could result in a loss of life or property," he said.
Hurst said he went to a scrap yard in Colton with the San Bernardino sheriff's investigator to help identify hydrant parts. He said they found buckets containing 287 pounds of mangled hydrant parts —worth about $500.
"He made it to where he fit in and looked like he was doing normal construction work," Hurst said. "He really went the extra mile."