DALLAS — Workers at Bradco Supply Corp. arrived one morning to find someone severed the heavy chain locks on the security fence at the Fort Worth shingle supply warehouse. Inside, empty wooden pallets were splintered and scattered across the floor.
They'd been robbed. Again.
Thieves have targeted Bradco Supply locations so much in recent months that company officials decided to add a unique splash of paint to the shingles' packaging to help police track down the stolen roofing material.
Crooks nationwide have been stealing millions of dollars worth of shingles from companies this year, a sizable increase from years past. Previously, thieves would steal them from construction sites, but not on this level. They're now getting ambitious, robbing warehouses — sometimes several semi-truckloads at a time — and hauling away hundreds of thousands of dollars in shingles. In Texas alone, at least $4 million worth have been stolen this year.
"It's tremendously exasperating," said Barbara Douglas of the Lumbermen's Association of Texas and Louisiana. "Especially for the people that have been hit more than once. It's like hitting them when they're down because the building economy is so slow. Retailers really can't take hits like this."
Investigators believe some thieves are part of an organized operation, stockpiling the materials in anticipation of hurricanes, tornadoes and other roof-ripping storms that would heighten the demand for their stolen wares. Other thefts may be isolated incidents from people looking to sell the shingles to roofers for a quick buck. Also, the soaring price of shingles, which are petroleum-based products, has driven the demand for cheaper, black-market roofing material.
The thefts are forcing roofing companies to spend thousands of dollars on security cameras, lighting and closed-circuit television equipment.
"All it's done is suck the energy out of us," said David Larson, a vice president of DeSoto, Texas-based DW Distribution, a building materials supplier that has lost $60,000 worth of shingles this year to theft.
'Still out there'
No law enforcement agencies track the number of shingle thefts nationwide. The Texas Department of Public Safety is working with police and sheriff's departments to stem the heists, said spokeswoman Tela Mange. But every day, she said, the thefts — and losses — continue to mount.
In July, masked thieves were caught on tape in Atlanta sawing through ABC Supply Co.'s fenced-in warehouse and then using the yard's forklift to load up a truck with shingles. Nearly $30,000 worth of materials were stolen and the thieves were never caught, said Bill Schuch, security chief for ABC Supply, one of the nation's largest roofing supply distributors.
"They're still out there, plying their trade," Schuch said. "They do it to everybody. They don't leave anyone out."
Since then, ABC Supply has installed more security cameras and fences and added GPS equipment to its vehicles.
Besides Atlanta, thieves have hit ABC Supply's locations in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Connecticut, Maryland and Texas, Schuch said.
Shingle thieves have also robbed several warehouses owned by Avenel, N.J.-based Bradco Supply. The Fort Worth theft in May left the warehouse ransacked and missing 10 semitrailer loads of shingles — worth a total of $120,000 and enough to cover approximately 65 homes of about 3,200 square feet each. In August, thieves hit Bradco's facility in Tulsa, Okla., and hauled away another $100,000 worth of shingles.
"It's almost like a chain of copycats at this point," said Charles Collins, Bradco's regional operations manager. "They figured the game out and now they're targeting us."
Other large roofing supply companies worry about being singled out. They've reported similar thefts to police, but company officials often don't want the public to know out of fear it would encourage more thefts or hurt the company's stock value, Schuch said.
Bradco has spent thousands of dollars to add paint to the packaging of its shingles to help track them down, and even though that's helped police identify the stolen goods once the thieves are nabbed, such measures add to the company's operational costs.
"That (cost) has to be passed on," Collins said. "It gets passed to the contractor who then passes it to the homeowner."
'Too good to pass up'
Smaller companies worry such costs could put them out of business.
"How can a small lumberyard do that, especially in this economy?" asked Laddy Rejcek, a manager at Blazek Building Supply, which recently lost more than $100,000 worth of shingles to thieves at its two Texas stores in Waxahachie and Ennis.
The tough economy has helped fuel the thefts because stolen shingles are cheaper.
A roofer who buys his shingles from a reputable supplier would charge between $12,000 and $14,000 to roof a 3,200-square-foot home, said Schuch, the ABC Supply security chief. A thief may charge $7,500 for the same job.
"A homeowner's gotta be thinking, 'You're kidding me. That's too good to pass up,'" he said.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.