On normal shifts working the mean streets of Baltimore's northwest police district, officer Maunda Williams catches people engaged in typical Mobtown crimes, like shooting people. But just after midnight on Oct. 18, 2012, Williams' shift started with something oddly amiss, right before his crime-keen eyes. It was going down right next door to the police station, at the Roost, the beautifully retro drive-in eatery that is far-famed for its deep-fried fare, especially its delectable lake trout.
Long lines of fried-food connoisseurs regularly form at the Roost, so its fryers work overtime, needing fresh oil on a regular basis-and producing huge volumes of used oil that restaurants like the Roost sell to companies that recycle it into animal feed or biofuels. That night, Williams had reason to suspect the Roost's prodigious quantities of old fryer fat were about to go somewhere they shouldn't, which would rob revenue from both the Roost and its used-oil recycler.
Williams, after returning to his personal vehicle to retrieve some items he needed for his shift, "observed a white Freightliner truck with a green tank on the back" as it entered the Roost's property, he wrote in court records. Williams "began to observe the actions of the truck driver in the rear of the restaurant" as the man "extended a long blue hose" from "a vacuum pumper type of tank on the rear of his truck" to two 300-gallon tanks "that are kept in the rear of the location to store the used cooking oil of the Roost."
Williams knew a thing or two about the used fryer-fat market-more than, say, a casual fan of The Simpsons, which in 1998 ran an episode, "Lard of the Dance," in which Homer and Bart try haplessly to enter the grease-theft racket.
"This used oil is very valuable," Williams wrote, "and is often specifically targeted by thieves who have the proper trucks and pumper equipment needed to syphon this used oil," which is "then sold to recycling companies and is worth approximately $3.00 per gallon."
The two tanks, Williams pointed out, bore signs announcing them as "the property of Valley Proteins, Inc.," yet "this truck did not bear any markings or company information," which "struck me as odd," since "I have seen these types of vacuum trucks in the past and have always observed the recycling company information to be clearly displayed."
Williams "decided to approach and investigate further." After returning to his patrol car and driving next door to the Roost, he "asked the driver/operator if he was authorized to collect this used oil," the court records state. When confronted, the driver, Anthony Lamont Fitzgerald, explained that "he was a subcontractor for Valley Proteins" and, as proof, showed Williams a black binder that "contained detailed listings of restaurant used oil collection locations from across" Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.
Williams was not impressed. He called Valley Proteins, using the phone number displayed on the Roost's tanks, and reached Marcus Singletary, described in the court records as "the transport manager who is in charge of the used oil collections for this region." Singletary explained that "his company does not employ any subcontractors and no one other than his employed drivers are authorized to collect used oil from their storage tanks."
Since Fitzgerald isn't a Valley Proteins employee, Singletary confirmed what Williams suspected: "If he's taking oil from our tanks," Singletary said, "then he's stealing from my company."
Busted-and not for the first time, nor the last. This was the second of three grease-theft cases brought against Fitzgerald since 2011. He got suspended prison sentences and probation for the first two, and is currently facing fresh charges in Baltimore County.
Fitzgerald should count his lucky stars that it was the lightly punitive local authorities that brought the boom down on him. It could be much, much worse. As accused grease thieves in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have learned over the past year, more potent law enforcers are on the case: the serious hardasses working for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Though used cooking oil is often stored outside, next to restaurants' garbage Dumpsters, it is not waste. It is "yellow gold," as Homer calls it. Thanks to the efforts of Valley Proteins and other well-heeled interests that lawfully collect used cooking oil for processing and resale, pilfering it is now being prosecuted at the federal level-and if convicted, those charged so far are facing as much as 15 years in federal prison and a $500,000 fine.
"Grease thieves are huge," says Neil Gagnon, Valley Proteins' district manager, whose bailiwick includes its Baltimore plant in Curtis Bay. Formed in 1949 and headquartered in Winchester, Va., the company is one of the bigger players in the rendering industry, an ancient trade that cooks, cleans, and separates the leftovers of food production to make raw materials for a myriad of products, from biofuels and animal feed to paint and cosmetics.
Back in 1995, Gagnon took City Paper on a tour of Valley Proteins' Baltimore plant, one of 15 the company operates in states from New York to Florida. Located in Curtis Bay on the banks of Cabin Branch, the plant's grinders, cookers, and centrifuges process millions of pounds of offal and restaurant grease each year, separating the liquid fats from the solid proteins. The fats are rendered into high-end tallows and lesser-valued "yellow grease," while the proteins become meat-and-bone meal, the core ingredient of animal feed.
Restaurants used to pay renderers to haul away their used oil. That changed in the mid-2000s-Gagnon pegs it to about 2005 or 2006-as rising fuel prices prompted increasing demand for biofuels that can be used in petroleum diesel vehicles. As a result, restaurants' waste oil has become a hot commodity, so renderers and biofuel producers pay restaurants about $1 per gallon for it-sometimes up to $2 per gallon-and then turn a tidy profit by processing and reselling it at higher margins.
At Baltimore Biodiesel Cooperative, which has fueling stations at the Mill Valley General Store in Remington and at Merriweather Post Pavilion, members can purchase biodiesel currently for $3.75 to $4.50 per gallon, according to its website. Yellow grease, meanwhile, has been going for between $2 and $3 per gallon, according to market surveys. So every gallon of grease stolen is one less gallon that renderers and biofuel producers can buy, taking a bite out of their profits.
"It's such an issue that we have a full-time lawyer on it, to help deal with the millions of pounds that grease thieves steal from us on a weekly basis," Gagnon explains, adding that the Baltimore/Washington, D.C./Philadelphia area "is the hardest hit for our company," though "it's a nationwide issue."
That lawyer, Charles Gittins, says that "across our company, we estimate that we lost over $5 million last year to grease theft. It's serious money."
Gittins says "my job is basically to try to educate law enforcement" about grease theft, "track the problem," and "hire investigators to identify the loci of big theft." He was hired by Valley Proteins in May 2012 after leaving a long and notable career as a military-justice defense attorney for those accused in some of the most notable military scandals in memory, from the Navy's Tailhook sex scandal to the torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners and the Haditha massacre of unarmed civilians in Iraq. So Gittins is no stranger to taking on big adversaries.
In joining Valley Proteins' team, Gittins signed on with an outfit with some serious industry clout. The company's president, Gerald F. Smith Jr., chairs the National Renderers Association (NRA), the industry's alliance of 51 companies that operate more than 205 rendering plants in North America, according to its website. The NRA has been taking grease theft very seriously, including the creation of a Grease Theft Task Force that Gittins has joined.
Earlier this year, the NRA published a "Restaurant Grease Theft Backgrounder," which puts some numbers on the industry-wide scope of the problem. From 2005 to 2012, the number of grease-theft incidents reported increased 150 percent to nearly 6,000, while the number of criminal charges filed jumped from 12 in 2005 to 188 in 2012. An industry survey found that the volume of grease stolen annually stands at about 8 percent of the total collected-an amount valued at nearly $40 million in lost revenue. The tanks and stout locks that are meant to prevent theft often get damaged during the crimes, adding an additional loss of around $3.26 million per year.
Given those eye-popping loss numbers, it's no wonder the NRA and Valley Proteins took the offensive. A key moment occurred in November 2012, when the NRA hired the Freeh Group, a consulting firm headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, to meet with senior DOJ and FBI officials in Washington. As Gittins explained it in an article in the October issue of NRA's magazine, Render, the purpose was "to educate them on the magnitude of the grease theft problem in the rendering industry and the collateral criminal activity that accompanies the individual thefts, including interstate transport of stolen grease, money laundering, and tax evasion."
Based on what's been happening since, hiring the Freeh Group appears to have been a smart move. Grease thieves have definitely been feeling the pain from the feds.
"Actually, I don't do the biodiesel," says Richard Arturo Figueroa of Hunt Valley. He's talking on his cellphone while driving, and there's a lot of loud noise in the background, like what a big truck might make, but he understands he's talking to a City Paper reporter. "I just collect the waste vegetable oil, that's all we do. We pick it up from restaurants and have a facility where we process it."
Is that the place in Middle River? "Not anymore, that's somebody else." Then, only about a minute into the conversation, he explains that he's approaching a toll booth and really should get off the phone, and maybe call back in an hour.
Figueroa seems not to know that he and his business-Rafxcel Services-are in the middle of a federal grease-theft investigation in Maryland that has resulted in charges and a guilty plea from Ahmad Qaabid Abdul-Rahim, the 37-year-old owner of a College Park grease-collection company called Waste Not Inc. If Figueroa does know he's squarely in the middle of this ongoing probe, he's being mighty coy about it.
According to Rahim's plea agreement, Waste Not in 2011 had 650 legitimate contracts to collect waste vegetable oil (WVO) from restaurants, but Rahim also stole grease-and "would take both his legitimate WVO and the stolen WVO to R.F.'s collection facility" at 1701 Leland Ave. in Middle River. Once at the facility, the WVO "would be sold to a fuel company located in Pennsylvania, among others," the plea agreement states, and "the Pennsylvania fuel company would send trucks to" the Middle River warehouse, "load the WVO, and transport it back to the fuel company's location in Pennsylvania."
Money from the sales went into bank accounts held by Figueroa's company, Rafxcel Services-and generated a ton of revenue: $1,575,982 between Jan. 18, 2012 and Sept. 20, 2012, according to Rahim's plea agreement, which says that Waste Not's take from this arrangement was $361,356 for 180,678 gallons of WVO-an even $2 per gallon.
But here's the rub: Rahim sold the stolen WVO at a marked-down price of $1.05 per gallon, according to the plea agreement, which means his legitimate WVO-86,500 gallons of it-sold for $3.03 per gallon.
Thus, Rafxcel Services paid about two-thirds less for stolen grease than for legitimate grease.
This is why Gittins says he wishes law enforcers would crack down on grease buyers who are only too happy to accept low prices with a wink and a nod, and thus enable the thieves to convert their quarry to cash.
"The thieves are selling it well under market," Gittins says, "so the buyers should be on notice."
Steve Blankenship, the logistics manager in the Washington, D.C. region for Greenlight Biofuels-which, like Valley Proteins, has been working hard to get grease thieves caught and prosecuted-adds that "that's the problem, the buyers aren't really interested in what the source is. And the problem is not going to solve itself without some sort of regulation of the buyers, to make sure it's coming from legitimate sources."
Rafxcel Services was not alone at the Middle River warehouse. Also there was a company called Green Initiative Global (GIG), a Delaware concern that advertises in Manhattan as a used-restaurant-oil collector. GIG's resident agent in Maryland, Anthony Jean Claude, registered in February with the U.S. Department of Transportation as a carrier of "WVO Waste Vegetable Oil" out of the same Leland Avenue address as Rafxcel Services' Middle River warehouse.
Claude has another Maryland company, MDGB (short for Maryland Green BioFuel), based out of an Arbutus address it shares with a company called Parking Management Enforcement, which does business as PME Towing-an outfit also mentioned in Rahim's plea agreement. Corporate records show Rahim and Claude formed Parking Management Enforcement in 2006.
After several years operating PME as a towing business, in May 2010 "A.C. suggested that he and Rahim could make money stealing WVO from restaurants in Maryland and Virginia and selling it to out-of-state oil companies," Rahim's plea agreement states. So the two did just that, "using Rahim's flatbed tow truck from PME towing." From May to October 2010, the plea agreement states, they "simply stole the WVO using the flatbed truck and a tank and mechanical pump."
After Rahim started Waste Not, he obtained a proper vacuum-pumper truck, got legitimate grease-collection contracts, and hired a driver, referred to in the plea agreement as "J.L.," who suggested they use the truck not only to service the contracts but also to steal WVO from other locations. From October 2011 until September 2012, J.L. would take the truck to Northern Virginia "to collect stolen WVO," the plea agreement states, and deliver it to the Middle River facility, where "A.C. used this warehouse to collect the stolen WVO, process it, and store it" until arranging for "the refined WVO to be sold to a fuel company located in Pennsylvania, among others."
Attempts to reach Claude at numerous phone numbers in the Baltimore area, Washington, D.C., and Florida-where in 2009 and 2010 he was a director of a now-defunct Miami company called MD Biodiesel Corporation-were fruitless.
GIG and Rafxcel in July were sued by a Hawkins Point company, BakerCorp, which leases heavy-duty tanks, pumps, and filtration systems. BakerCorp's lawyer, Mark Lynch, says the company "leased grease collection tanks to Rafxcel," and successfully sued for their return. Lynch says grease collection is a "popular use" of BakerCorp's leased tanks, stressing that "BakerCorp had absolutely no idea that the tanks were going to be used potentially for any illegal purpose."
It takes a lot of money to lease a grease-collection tank from BakerCorp, according to Blankenship. "They're not cheap," he says, adding that "if you have the means to lease one, you're in it big-time."
Figueroa and Claude have not been charged publicly with any crime related to the Rahim investigation-though Rahim was charged on Aug. 27 with interstate transportation of stolen goods in Maryland U.S. District Court and entered his guilty plea on Sept. 23. He's scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 3.
A call back to Figueroa at the appointed time, an hour after he talked on his phone while driving, went to voicemail. He never returned the call. A quick Google search turns up the likely location of the new facility he referred to in the earlier call: Rafxcel Services is now at 8213 Rosebank Ave. in Dundalk, on the banks of Back River.
On Aug. 15, a little less than two weeks before Rahim's grease-theft charges were filed in Maryland, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia issued a press release: "Philadelphia Man Charged with Stealing Cooking Oil."
That's a quaint headline in the realm of federal law-enforcement press releases, which usually announce milestones in efforts to take down more sinister-sounding criminals like drug kingpins, child pornographers, or big-time financial fraudsters.
But the recent federal grease-theft crackdown has meant more such publicity coming out of law enforcers' PR teams. The Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office press release announcing Rahim's case was titled "Owner of Waste Collection Business Pleads Guilty to Transporting Stolen Waste Vegetable Oil." An even wordier one was issued by the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney's Office last December: "Three Indicted in Alleged Theft of Used Cooking Oil From Hundreds of Massachusetts and Rhode Island Restaurants."
The fact that these press releases are being written at all, though, is evidence of progress for Valley Proteins, Greenlight Biofuels, and other big players in the kitchen-grease collection business. It means their concerns are prompting tangible action at the highest levels of national law enforcement, and the resulting publicity is spreading the word about the grease-theft phenomenon.
The Rhode Island case is replete with an inside snitch, thousands of gallons of allegedly stolen oil transported in approximately 50,000-pound loads, an attempt to camouflage the alleged theft operation by outfitting a pickup truck with a camper cap and a quiet pump, and a mobster-probing FBI agent interviewing grease buyers.
Three men were indicted: brothers Andrew and Bruce Jeremiah-the owners and operators of three companies, Jeremiah Motors Corp., Removal Services, and Green Energy, who both have prior drug-conspiracy convictions-and one of their truck drivers, Anthony Simone Sr., also a drug convict, who cooperated with the FBI in the final stages of the investigation and pleaded guilty in the resulting indictment. The Jeremiah brothers' trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 5, and if convicted, they face possible 15-year prison sentences and $500,000 fines.
The case records allege that starting in January 2012, a New Hampshire trucking company, Abenaqui Carriers, delivered 806,740 pounds-almost 110,000 gallons-of used cooking oil from the Jeremiahs' operation to a New Hampshire biodiesel producer, AMENICO, which is short for American Energy Independence Company. Between Jan. 31, 2011 and Nov. 5, 2012, the court records show, AMENICO paid the Jeremiahs' business Removal Services $429,268.07 for deliveries of used cooking oil.
As part of the ongoing Jeremiah investigation, FBI agent Jeffrey Cady-a veteran of taking down New England mobsters-in May interviewed two companies that buy unrefined used restaurant oil to establish the going price per gallon, according to court records. Mopac, a rendering company in Souderton, Pa., was willing to pay approximately $1.75 per gallon, and EnviroTek USA, a biodiesel producer in Tewksbury, Mass., would pay $2 gallon if "there was a large volume of oil being sold."
The Jeremiah case also has an interesting tidbit about tactics in the grease-theft world intended to lessen the attention unmarked pumper trucks attract. Andrew Jeremiah allegedly wanted the collection operation to be more "mysterious" so they could "rob things . . . right in the [expletive] daytime," court records state. To that end, he allegedly took "several steps towards camouflaging his Dodge pickup truck," including "attempting to outfit it with a low profile oil tank, a quiet pump with a custom muffler, and a camper cap" without windows.
The Philadelphia case is against Bernard Corbin, whose indictment remained under seal from February until shortly before he was detained in August. His trial date, initially scheduled for October, was recently reset to start in January. He's accused of setting up a company called Simply Green that "hired employees to travel around the Philadelphia area and steal used cooking oil from storage containers used by restaurants and then bring the cooking oil back to the Simply Green facility," according to the indictment.
Corbin is also accused of supplying his employees with "bolt cutters to cut open the locks which restaurants used to secure" the waste-oil containers, and "vans containing holding tanks and pumping systems to pump the stolen oil" out of the containers.
The Corbin indictment also describes the fate of Simply Green's allegedly stolen oil, illustrating the multi-tiered, multi-player, integrated nature of the grease-theft economy. Corbin allegedly "sold the cooking oil to K.D., a cooking oil merchant," who sold it to "J.K., a broker located in New Jersey," who sold it to "a New York company named 'B Green Group,'" who "hired a Minnesota trucking company to drive to Pennsylvania to pick up the stolen oil. After further processing, the oil was shipped around the United States."
If the feds' cases against Corbin and the Jeremiah brothers proves the scenarios they've alleged, and if the Rahim probe expands from its already admitted complexity, there are many, many players in the grease-theft world who may find themselves in the authorities' crosshairs.
After all, each of these probes in ongoing, and the available evidence suggests they could travel far and wide.
Valley Proteins' Gittins knows all about Anthony Fitzgerald, the guy Baltimore police officer Maunda Williams busted at the Roost last fall.
"He came out of our Baltimore plant," Gittins explains, claiming that "two of our former employees have been out there stealing. We call them 'the Two Anthonys.'"
The other, Anthony Barner, has not been charged criminally-though Valley Proteins sued him in September 2011, several months after he resigned as one of the company's truck drivers who picked up used restaurant grease.
"He kept his uniforms, the keys to the locks at the restaurants, [and] the manifest" that listed Valley Proteins grease-collection customers, says Gittins, echoing what the lawsuit claims.
On June 6, 2011, according to the lawsuit, Barner was stopped and ticketed by Rockville police "after he caused a grease spill from a green vacuum truck he was driving on Rockville Pike"-and when this happened, he "was wearing a Valley [Proteins] uniform" and had a Valley Proteins "service manifest" listing the company's "restaurant customers on Rockville Pike."
Then, the lawsuit continues, on Aug. 31, 2011, also while wearing a Valley Proteins uniform, Barner went to America's Best Wings in Randallstown-whose owner confronted him, prompting Barner to leave.
The lawsuit, which was settled after three lawyers for Valley Proteins spent more than a year litigating the case (including relentless efforts to serve Barner), concludes that he "has taken or attempted to take grease" from Valley Proteins customers "while misrepresenting himself" as an employee.
While trying to serve him, the lawyers discovered that in August 2011, Barner started a company in White Marsh called Planet Fuel Recovery-another feel-good corporate name along the lines of others in the picture of the grease-theft probes, like Simply Green, Waste Not, Green Initiative Global, and Green Energy.
Gittins says Valley Proteins got its property back and the lawsuit was dismissed.
Meanwhile, Greenlight Biofuels' Blankenship says his efforts to make grease thieves feel the pain have started to bear fruit too. The thefts are "so easy to do," he explains, but by "educating law enforcement on the problem, saying, 'This is a problem, we need some help,' it's starting to get on their radar."
Blankenship's optimism is tempered by the scale of the problem, though. "We filed 647 police reports about grease thefts last year," he explains, "and we've filed about 350 so far this year. But I believe theft is not down. It's unbelievable the number of people out there doing this. The thieves are just getting smarter."