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Traffic Stop Foils Equipment Theft Ring

Wed September 12, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

Citronelle, Ala., police officer Corey Henderson was on routine patrol in the wee hours in November 2005, when he spotted a pickup truck weaving back and forth.

Henderson pulled the pickup over and then walked toward it to confirm his suspicions that the driver was drunk.

It could have ended with a DUI charge, but Henderson noticed two curiosities that might have escaped a less observant officer. First, the back of the pickup contained a unique hitch ideal for moving a tractor that recently had been reported stolen. And second, the driver was wearing an unusual pair of work boots that matched a distinctive imprint at the scene of that theft.

The driver, a drifter with a record of petty criminal offenses, soon confessed to the theft and offered to tell investigators about others. Thus unraveled one of the largest theft rings in Mobile County’s history, a group responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stolen tractors, backhoes and other heavy equipment.

The case had vexed law enforcement authorities in Alabama and Mississippi for more than two years.

“This little small-town police officer cracked one of the biggest cases around because he did what any police officer is supposed to do — he paid attention,” said Chad Tucker, who was then the assistant police chief in Citronelle and now serves as administrative assistant to Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran.

By the time it was over, authorities had recovered most of the large equipment and indicted four men on federal charges of transporting stolen items across state lines. Prosecutors wrapped up the last of those cases this summer.

According to U.S. District Court records in Mobile, the conspiracy comprised:

• Ray Charles “Shorty” Smith — the thief. According to his written plea agreement with federal prosecutors, he was the man stopped by Henderson at 2 a.m. on that November morning and the one who actually stole the machinery. Chief U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. “Ginny” Granade sentenced him to five years’ probation, with 120 days of it in a halfway house.

• Stoney “Big Boy” Fairley — the brains. The 41-year-old Citronelle man admitted in court that he set up the operation, directing Smith to bring the stolen equipment to him. Granade sentenced him to 11 months in prison.

• Billy Ray Ingram — the fence. The 56-year-old Sumrall, Miss., man admitted that he met Fairley in a Hattiesburg, Miss., pawn shop and then started buying the steeply discounted equipment. Granade sentenced him to probation and fined him $3,000 in July.

The fourth man, Raymond Mitchell, originally faced allegations that he purchased one of the vehicles — a Bobcat tractor — knowing that it was stolen. But prosecutors moved to dismiss the charges against him soon after the grand jury handed up the indictment.

Victimized Again and Again

The lenient sentences have irked some of the victims.

“That didn’t sit too well with me,” said Donald Jones, who owns a Citronelle company called Advantage Moulding and Millworks that manufactures custom doors and windows.

The thieves hit Jones’ business more than once.

“It was a litany of things. They decided I was an easy mark,” he said. “They hit me four times.”

The first time, Jones recalled, he lost a 1997 Kubota tractor with a front-end loader and Bush Hog. He said his insurance company gave him a settlement, which he used to buy a brand-new replacement

“It was here seven days, and then they stole it,” he said.

Theft has long been a concern among contractors, who often have little choice but to leave equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars unprotected overnight at work sites.

Jim Rives, the vice president of the Alabama Associated General Contractors, recalled speaking to a law enforcement group in Birmingham nearly two decades ago about construction equipment theft.

“It was a big deal. It was a big problem,” he said. “It was right after those little Bobcat loaders came out, and it was a lot easier to steal.”

Rives said he hoped to alert police to the problem and get them to pay closer attention to often-vulnerable construction sites.

Oftentimes, Rives said, job sites make juicy targets because of the high value of the equipment that sits unguarded after hours. In addition, he added, most folks do not think twice when they see people on a work site moving machinery or tools.

Rives said he drove past a construction site in the Birmingham area on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2000 and saw men loading bricks onto a truck. But they were dressed like carpenters, and there were no other workers around, he said.

“They were stealing the bricks, but they looked legitimate,” he said.

Rives said he asked the men to leave and called the supervisor. The men, who turned out to be carpenters on the project looking to make a quick buck on the bricks, left the site and never returned to work — not even to pick up their paychecks.

Rives said that to most of the general public, though, the men would not have registered any suspicion.

Making the Exchange

The Alabama-Mississippi theft ring that ended with the conviction and sentencing of three men had begun at least two years earlier.

That’s when Shorty Smith met Big Boy Fairley, according Fred Tiemann, the assistant federal defender who represented Smith.

At the time, Tiemann said, the 57-year-old man was basically homeless and living out of his truck. Fairley put him up in a hotel and paid for his food, Tiemann said. In exchange, Smith agreed to build a storage shed in Fairley’s yard.

Smith had a background as a mechanic and was comfortable around heavy equipment.

“He drives heavy equipment. He knows how to operate heavy equipment,” Tiemann said.

Tiemann said that Fairley, who owned a lawn care company, convinced Smith to steal tractors and other equipment, and then bring them to the storage shed.

According to court records, Fairley would negotiate the sale of the items to Ingram, who either kept the items for his own contracting business or sold them for a profit.

Ingram’s written plea agreement depicts him as a somewhat reluctant participant. It states that he expressed concern to Fairley at one point that the items were stolen after seeing a Mobile County property sticker on a tractor that authorities said had been stolen from a county work camp.

Fairley soothed his concerns. “It’s cool,” the plea document quotes him as saying.

Court records describe a series of exchanges worthy of a cloak-and-dagger movie. When Smith said he needed keys to steal the equipment, according to Fairley’s plea agreement, Ingram provided a large bag of keys to many different kinds of tractors.

Jones, of Advantage Moulding and Millworks, said his Kubota tractor was particularly vulnerable since one key operates all copies of the same model.

In a typical transaction in late 2005, Fairley and Smith brought a stolen John Deere 790 tractor with a front-end loader to Ingram’s shop in Hattiesburg.

Originally taken from Mobile Tractor Inc. on the night of Sept. 17, 2005, Ingram arranged a buyer for the $20,000 vehicle, according to court documents. He then called Fairley and made arrangements to hand off the money. Ingram put $4,000 cash in one bag and $3,500 in another and gave them to Fairley at a truck stop on U.S. 98.

Court documents and interviews with lawyers in the case reveal other stolen items, including:

• A relatively new John Deere tractor with a front-end loader.

Ingram stated that he found a buyer who paid $8,500 in late 2005 for the $20,000 tractor.

• A $20,000 Kubota tractor that was reported stolen from Eight Mile, Ala., on Sept. 30, 2005. Ingram admitted that he sold the tractor for $12,500 and gave the money to Fairley at the Clover Leaf Mall in Hattiesburg.

• A new John Deere tractor that had been stolen from Mobile Tractor on the night of Nov. 3, 2005, and was worth about $45,000. Ingram admitted that he sold it for $18,000 cash and gave $14,000 to Fairley on U.S. 98.

Other items included a 2002 John Deere tractor with a machete attachment taken Nov. 20, 2005, from a Mobile County work camp. A Bobcat tractor with a Millennium 12-ton tandem trailer also was taken.

Authorities in Mississippi reported the theft of a brand-new Caterpillar backhoe Feb. 1, 2005, from a construction site in the Hattiesburg area.

“It was right on the highway on a Sunday morning. We worked on Saturday and came back to the site on Monday, and it was gone,” said contractor Phil Hanberry, whose company was building a restaurant across from the largest hospital in southern Mississippi.

Hanberry, of Hanco Corp., said he eventually got the tractor back — a year later — when police called to inform him they had found it. By then, he had long ago settled with his insurance company.

“It’s kind of frustrating, because we had to purchase it back from the insurance company,” he said. “It still cost us money and lost time, and we don’t get any say in what happens in court.”

Tucker, the former Citronelle assistant chief and current sheriff’s official in Mobile County, recalled having no leads for the string of thefts. Then came that fateful traffic stop, the first big break.

“We were lucky because it was an organized effort. There were specific people in charge of specific things,” he said.

So advanced was the operation, Tucker said, that investigators began to wonder if the thieves were moving the stolen equipment to a port and shipping it overseas. He said he remains skeptical about the likelihood that authorities got everything back.

“My investigators suspected it was much bigger than what we could recover,” he said.

Tucker said that once Shorty Smith was in the custody, though, he began talking and “it began to unfold very quickly.”

He said investigators headed immediately to Mississippi and did not return for several days as Smith led them to fields, plots of land in subdivisions and even a chicken coop where the thieves had stashed the stolen equipment.

“At one point, 12 investigators were working around the clock on this thing,” Tucker said.

Swift Justice

Once the grand jury handed up its indictments, the court proceedings moved swiftly. With a cooperating co-defendant in Smith and overwhelming evidence, Ingram and Fairley quickly pleaded guilty.

Judge Granade, a former prosecutor with a no-nonsense reputation, accepted the plea bargains of all three defendants. She agreed to probation for Ingram but expressed bewilderment that the conspiracy included a reputable businessman with no prior criminal record.

“Mr. Ingram, it’s beyond me why a person like you would become involved in this type of activity,” she said at his July 17 sentencing hearing.

Fairley, who conceived the conspiracy, is the only defendant who will serve any time in prison.

Of the three, Smith might be the biggest character. At 5-foot-6, he hardly intimidates. The photograph that appears on his presentence investigation report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office shows him with a cap on his head and a toothpick hanging from his mouth.

The first day he was scheduled to be sentenced, July 18, Smith was a no-show. Granade issued a warrant for his arrest. When he came to court two days later, the judge asked for an explanation about the earlier absence. Tiemann said his client, who has an unreliable car and was coming from Mississippi, left his home at 4 a.m. to give himself plenty of room for error.

He arrived at the federal defender’s office before 9 a.m. But his hearing was not scheduled until that afternoon. So he left his lawyer’s office with plans to meet him in court, only to doze off in his car and sleep right through the hearing, Tiemann told the judge.

Now in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit, Smith appeared once again to be sentenced. The judge delayed her decision, however, after a strange twist: Smith challenged the convictions on his record, insisting another Ray Charles Smith was the man with the record. The Mississippi court records that could prove or disprove that claim washed away in Hurricane Katrina.

In the end, prosecutors could prove only one of the convictions, although it likely did not impact his punishment.

The thefts have left business owners thinking of ways to better safeguard their expensive equipment.

“We have made a big investment in security. We have taken great steps to increase security,” said Hanberry, of Hanco.

Still, authorities said, no security system is perfect.

“It’s difficult if you’ve got a $100,000 tractor on a small farm. It’s hard to protect,” said Tucker, the sheriff’s official. “The county couldn’t protect their tractor, and they had a fence.” CEG

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