Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 9, 2015

Sheriff’s Office discusses recent construction property theft with home builders

Detective Brian Ashburn of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office points to a map that indicates the locations of recent construction robberies. - (Photo by David Laprad)

A recent spate of thefts at new construction sites has local home builders asking what they can do to protect their assets. A detective with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office says GPS asset trackers, which could enable law enforcement to learn the source of the thefts, is one way. A community relations coordinator with the Sheriff’s Office says relying on neighbors and local law enforcement to help keep an eye on vacant properties is another.

Detective Brian Ashburn of the Sheriff’s Office met with local builders at their monthly meeting at the Home Builders of Greater Chattanooga Sept. 30 to lead a discussion about new construction theft.

Ashburn displayed a map showing recent thefts in the Ooltewah area. Around 30 yellow text bubbles, each containing the address of a property hit by thieves, peppered the map. (The actual number of robberies is higher since burglars have hit some houses more than once, including a house on Red Poppy Drive at least three times.) When he asked the group of about two dozen builders which of them had been hit, several raised their hands.

Although there is no pattern to the thefts, Ashburn has been able piece together enough clues to have suspects. Based on the evidence he’s gathered and at least one eyewitness account, he’s also put together what he believes is their method of operation.

In many of the cases, the thieves broke into the home through the back door. Although they’ve stolen doors, toilets, and water heaters (in the latter case, the thieves simply cut the line and let the water run), the most commonly lifted items are appliances such as refrigerators and stoves. Since these items cost between $1,500 and $2,500, builders who have been hit multiple times are suffering stiff losses.

“They’re dragging them to the garage door, and then someone with a truck comes and picks them up,” Ashburn said. “No one knows how long they’re in the houses, but the truck is there less than a minute. They know what they’re doing.”

Conversely, Ashburn knows how to read the traces the crooks leave behind. For example, in some of the cases, the appliance was still boxed, and the thieves removed the item from the packaging. This tells him the vehicle they’re using is too small for one of the boxes.

That said, catching the criminals hasn’t been easy. “I’ve spent hours putting together lists in the hopes of finding a common denominator,” he said. “The only one I can find is the company from which most of them are buying their appliances, but appliances from other places have been stolen, too, so I don’t think it’s the appliance company.” Also, since the houses are vacant, Ashburn hasn’t been able to pinpoint the time of the robberies.

The detective is hoping to get lucky with the GPS asset trackers he’s hidden in appliances in some new homes. The Sheriff’s Office owns and has deployed a number of Dewalt Mobilelock Portable Alarms with GPS. The battery powered and wireless units can notify Ashburn via text or other means if an appliance is on the move. “I leave my phone on at night so I’ll hear the alarm if it goes off,” he said.

Ashburn suggested builders also purchase and use GPS asset trackers as a means of helping to catch the thieves. The Dewalt alarm costs about $220, and requires the use of a monitoring service priced at $19.95 per month. Ashburn will even help a builder install the devices and serve as their primary contact should an incident occur.

“I want to catch these guys as much as you want them to be caught,” he said.

Ashburn encouraged the builders present to call him rather than patrol if one of their appliances is stolen. The police will attempt to locate and arrest the perpetrator, he said, but his goal is to find out where the appliances are going and capture a larger number of thieves. “I want to allow the appliances to be stolen and see where they end up,” he said. “They might be going to a warehouse somewhere.”

Shannon Wilson, Neighborhood Watch community relations coordinator with the Sheriff’s Office, suggested two cost-free means of at least keeping a better eye on a house, including notifying the neighborhood association when workers will be on site. “Tell them to report suspicious activity if they see someone on your property at night,” she said. “Your neighbors are your best resource for helping to stop what’s going on.”

Wilson also encouraged builders to ask the Sheriff’s Office and Chattanooga Police Department to place their properties on watch lists, which will result in more frequent patrols. “This is a free service, and we don’t mind doing it,” she said.

Ashburn said vigilance is key, and advised builders to continue to seek ways to protect their assets, even if law enforcement catches the current perpetrators. “Once we lock these guys up, three more will take their place,” he said. “It’s an ongoing thing.”

For more information, or to report suspicious activity or a theft, contact Detective Ashburn at (423) 893-3503, extension 231, or bashburn@hcsheriff.gov.