The crooks and the cooking oil: inside the world of grease thefts from restaurants
For those not saturated in the multimillion-dollar world of used cooking oil thefts from restaurants, such acts of larceny may seem perplexing.
Grease grabbers in recent years have sent police on a 50-mile chase, claimed to be working on behalf of "Russian bosses" in New York City, and been arrested in connection with cooking oil thefts in more than one town before going on to allegedly injure an auto repair shop employee while trying to steal diesel fuel.
And that's just in Connecticut.
In North Carolina in June 2019, a federal grand jury indicted 21 people on charges of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen goods and money laundering, for stealing cooking oil in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee and transporting it to New Jersey for sale.
Thieves sell used cooking oil on the black market because it can be converted to biodiesel, an alternative to petroleum diesel that can be used for transportation fuel and heating, and for which there is growing demand. Also known as yellow grease, it can be used in soaps and shampoos, pet food, detergents and more.
Grease thefts are nothing new, but a more high-profile one happened June 9, when police said two men from Yonkers and the Bronx were apprehended with about 1,000 gallons of cooking oil in Westport, after fleeing Old Saybrook and hitting a car along the way.
The next day about 6 a.m., an officer saw a suspicious van in the area of La Llorona restaurant in Niantic and noticed activity consistent with organized grease and oil thefts, East Lyme police said. Police arrested a New Jersey man driving a van outfitted with storage tanks and pumps.
The fiscal loss from stolen oil varies from restaurant to restaurant but is often negligible to the bottom line, though they may have to deal with the hassle of cleaning up spilled oil.
The much bigger financial loss is to cooking oil retrieval and recycling companies that service Connecticut restaurants, such as DAR PRO Solutions, Baker Commodities and Mahoney Environmental Solutions.
Bob Skinner has worked for Baker Commodities for 34 years, from driving to sales to grease theft investigation now. Baker Commodities takes used oil from customers to its facility in Billerica, Mass., processes it, and sells it to companies in industries such as animal feed and plastics.
Skinner, who said nothing compares to the theft levels he's seen in the past year or two, catches at least two to four thieves a week.
The company has cameras at restaurants, and if there's movement in front of the oil tank at an odd hour, Skinner gets an alert on his phone. He may get awakened at 3 a.m. and will call local police, who can respond in minutes and catch thieves in the act.
Skinner said the company does get the oil back on most occasions. But the perpetrators may have damaged the outdoor receptacle, which could cost $600 or $700 to replace.
Baker Commodities drivers go to restaurants anywhere from every two to eight weeks, depending on their volume of oil, Skinner explained. Drivers still get paid even if theft means they're not coming back with a full load, and the cost of drivers is going up due to rising diesel costs.
One of Baker's customers is Old Saybrook Pizza Palace — whose owner called police reporting he interrupted the cooking oil theft that ended up instigating the recent police chase.
Other cooking oil management companies have positions similar to Skinner's.
DAR PRO, which has locations across the country, has Frank Scoggins — who previously spent 25 years as a narcotics and homicide detective with the Houston Police Department. He now heads up the company's "Grease Police" team.
"It was kind of a joke when we first started, which was frustrating, but more people understand now," Scoggins said in a blog post last August.
The National Renderers Association in 2019 estimated that $75 million worth of grease is stolen every year.
"Since the price of used cooking oil is so high, there's a lot of thieves out there, that want to get in on the act, too," Skinner said. He said the price of used cooking oil traded on the commodities market is about 60 cents a gallon, and he's never seen it that high before.
Skinner said thieves are selling oil on the black market in New Jersey. If someone in a white van or without a paper trail tries to sell oil to Baker Commodities, they'll be told to turn around.
How prevalent is this issue?
The Town of Groton and Norwich police chiefs said they haven't received reports of cooking oil thefts, while Waterford police Lt. David Ferland said the department has responded to two in the past four years: at Crown Pizza in October 2018 and The Shack in October 2019.
In the course of one week last January, East Lyme police responded to thefts at Charlie's Place and Daddy's Noodle Bar on two days and arrested three people, one from New Haven and two from New York.
Charlie Anastasiou, owner of Charlie's Place, said Newport Biodiesel — now owned by Mahoney Environmental of Newport, R.I. — comes to pick up his used cooking oil roughly once a month and he gets about $9 for it. He said pickup is "a convenience, because they pick it up and I don't have to worry about nothing."
He hasn't had any thefts since last January, when an officer on patrol spotted suspicious activity. Police said when the officer approached, a man ran into the wooded area behind the restaurant. A K-9 team from state police responded and helped East Lyme police find the man.
"I think this combined with the organized retail thefts definitely are increasing," East Lyme police Chief Michael Finkelstein said this past week. "There is a market for the secondary use of the oils as heating oil in places, so I think certainly the economy and that situation and the price of heating oil and diesel fuel certainly factor into it."
He said arrests are generally of people from the New York City area, and "these aren't people that are just randomly happening upon a place. There's a market for it."
This past April, Stonington police arrested two people for allegedly stealing used cooking oil from Sea View Snack Bar in Mystic. The police summary said it was 1:50 a.m. when an officer noticed a white van in the parking lot, and "being aware of recent used cooking oil thefts," he turned his vehicle around and then stopped the van.
Police arrested Gerard Adonis Marichal, 26, and Juan Francisco Rivas, 44, both of the Bronx. They were both charged with fourth-degree larceny, conspiracy to commit fourth-degree larceny, third-degree criminal trespass and third-degree criminal mischief.
Police said the owner of Sea View Snack Bar confirmed it was missing the better part of 200 gallons of used cooking oil.
The same person who was charged with sixth-degree larceny in the June 10 oil theft in Niantic — Jose Borgen-Reyes of Paterson, N.J. — was one of two people whom New London police said officers interrupted trying to steal used cooking oil from Tony D's in New London at 3:33 a.m. on May 15. Police said Borgen-Reyes also was in possession of crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia and a knife.
At 4:17 the following morning, New London police said, officers responded to a report of a suspicious vehicle stealing cooking oil at Tony D's and arrested two Yonkers men, one of whom had cocaine.
New London police shared information on the Tony D's incidents in response to a query from The Day last week. But across the region, it's unclear how many thefts have gone publicly unreported due to the different ways police departments report incidents. Some — such as East Lyme and Ledyard — email media their arrests and include incident summaries with each one. But others just list the charges. Cooking oil thieves are often only charged with sixth-degree larceny, the same charge typically used for shoplifting.
State Rep. Tami Zawistowski, R-East Granby, in 2019 introduced a bill that would make the theft of waste vegetable oil or animal fats fourth-degree larceny. The lone person to submit written testimony was Terrence Plakias, co-owner of Western Mass. Rendering Co. and the constituent who brought the issue of theft to Zawistowski's attention.
"Many people don't realize that cooking oil is a valuable commodity; last year his company recorded nearly 2000 known or suspected thefts," Zawistowski said in a May 2019 news release. "Current penalties are not sufficient to deter these thefts."
The bill passed with bipartisan support in the state House and then 36-0 in the Senate but Gov. Ned Lamont vetoed it. He said in his veto message, "A person who steals $35 worth of waste vegetable oil should not face the prospect of a prison sentence four times greater than that faced by a person who steals $35 worth of gasoline."
Over the past five years, news reports on cooking oil thefts have seemingly been more common in western coastal Connecticut, which makes sense considering most people arrested are from New York, specifically Yonkers.
The manager of Planet Pizza in Norwalk told Hearst Connecticut Media in 2018 that attempted oil thefts happen once or twice a month, and while returned oil only brings in about $10 per 100 gallons returned, unsuccessful attempts often leave a mess.
But the issue is statewide. East Windsor Sgt. Derek Leab told The Journal Inquirer in December 2019 that the town had been hit by cooking oil thefts three times in as many weeks. And after the Old Saybrook police chase, J. Timothy's Tavern in Plainville tweeted that several attempts at oil theft have happened at the restaurant the past few years, and one night the real retrieval company arrived as thieves were trying to steal the oil.