Sunday, November 13, 2011

Grease thieves cash in

ROCK HILL, MO. — Bobby Tessler’s temper sizzled just as much as his chicken wings as he stood over his deep fryers Tuesday and thought about the money that recently greased the pockets of thieves instead of his own.

Since he opened his business St. Louis Wing Co. in April, thieves have siphoned hundreds of pounds of grease from a container behind his business, depriving him of about $2,000 that a grease rendering company would have paid him.

“It’s a big deal. There’s a huge underground out there for this stuff,” he said.

Grease thefts have been on the rise since the introduction of biofuels to the market once dominated by animal feed and soap industries. Combating the thefts is difficult because the penalties are minimal despite environmental and financial concerns, said Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association.

“Others have said that this is like the new copper,” Cook said. “These thieves are getting more sophisticated. It’s a multimillion-dollar business for them.”

Empty container

Tessler knew something was amiss after he called his rendering company to ask why he had not been paid for the grease he had put in their container during the first six months he was open.

“They told us our container never had anything in it,” he said.

He called police, who then spotted three teenagers removing grease from Tessler’s restaurant and other restaurants in the early hours of Sept. 26. Rock Hill police have arrested one of those three, said Capt. Jorden Lewis.

The suspect, 19, has yet to be charged, but told police that he paid his 17- and 18-year-old accomplices to be lookouts and help keep him awake, Lewis said. He told officer Kevin Clinton that he was from the Springfield, Mo., area.

He also told police that he worked for a legitimate grease rendering company but had been stealing grease from businesses in Arkansas and the St. Louis area to make money on the side.

In a separate case, brothers Gary and Ryan Vaughn were charged with misdemeanor theft after stealing grease from a Chinese restaurant in the St. Louis area. The pair also said they were from Springfield, Mo. The owners of Hong Kong Express said St. Louis police caught the two on surveillance cameras stealing grease Nov. 2.

Nobody cares

News of the arrests and charges isn’t encouraging to local rendering companies, such as Belleville-based Kostelac Grease Service.

“It’s a crime that nobody really cares about,” said John Kostelac, who co-owns the business with his brother, Jim Kostelac. “When copper thieves get caught they are sent to prison, but when somebody gets caught stealing grease, they get a slap on the hand and are turned loose and are out stealing again.”

Tell-tale signs

Kostelac said his drivers can tell when a business has been hit because the thieves often leave a greasy mess behind. They usually have 1,000-gallon tanks on trucks and do not carry cleaning supplies with them in case of a spill, he said.

It’s also hard to estimate the value of the stolen grease. It is a commodity; the purer the product, the more it is worth, Kostelac said.