Tire changers, vehicles among items taken in 'odd type of theft.'

By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News

Turon Mill sits off the beaten path, enticing thieves searching for a goldmine in rural Kansas.

On a late November night, they came, not in search of grain or anhydrous ammonia like in the past - but cash and expensive tools. On this evening, they got away with the mill's Dewalt battery-powered drills and several power tools and saws.

"This is the only time in many years that Ed can remember this happening," said mill owner Dorothy Marlow of her husband. "We never got them back."

The mill isn't the only one across the rural Kansas landscape being targeted by thieves, however. In south-central Kansas alone, a handful of remote Kansas elevators have reported burglaries.

At Stafford County Flour Mills' Sylvia elevator, employee Travis Mathes said the location was hit around the same time as Turon Mill, losing about $150 from a cash drawer. At Haviland-based Farmers Co-op Co., General Manager Stan Stark said someone broke in and took power tools from one of the cooperative's buildings.

Other area elevators have seen bigger and heavier items carted away, said Dustin Cooke, an investigator with the Kingman County Sheriff's Department. At least 15 cases in recent months - from the Colorado border to Kingman County - have involved the theft of tire changers. Three elevators in Kingman County have been struck - Brown Spur, Penalosa and Zenda.

Bobbie Ehrlich, an employee at Cairo Co-op Equity Exchange's Turon location, said thieves stole a Bobcat parked at one of Cairo's Kingman elevators, picked up a tire machine there and also stole a company pickup.

So far, no one has been arrested in connection with the burglaries, said Reno County Sheriff's Department Capt. Steve Lutz. Checks at pawnshops, through Facebook and eBay listings have turned up nothing.

It would seem as if it was the same person or group of people, based on what is being stolen, said Cooke.

However, he added, "All counties involved are sitting at the same place in our investigation. We don't have any leads. They are all similar in what has been taken, but we have nothing to go on."

Preying onrural trust

Sedgwick County Deputy Sheriff Joel Blogref, who operates the Construction Agriculture Livestock Information Network - a statewide group aimed to get the word out on suspicious rural activities - said the latest burglary occurred just a few weeks ago.

Why anyone would want to steal a heavy tire changer is anyone's guess, Blogref said, noting the joke in the office is that the bandits are preparing to open their own tire business.

However, in all seriousness, he added, these folks must have a market. A Coats-model tire changer - similar to one stolen at an elevator in the Hamilton County town of Kendall - is bringing between $1,000 and $2,000 on eBay.

"It's a question we can't answer," said Kingman County's Cooke. "It is a very odd type of theft. Resale is the only thing that comes to mind."

Part of the issue is the solitude of farm country, as well as the trust among those living in these areas of the state, he said.

Those committing the crimes are exploiting those rural attributes.

"They are always a potential target, given the rural nature of the business," said Scott Anderson, chief operating officer with Hutchinson-based KFSA, which provides insurance and risk management to Kansas elevators. "The most common thefts are tools, petty cash and the like."

Like the copper and scrap metal thefts of the past, Blogref said, he suspects most of those doing the stealing want money to buy drugs.

"I always attribute most of this stuff to meth," he said. "It is that big of a problem - drug addiction in general. If you are addicted to drugs, you can't have a steady job. You can only pawn your own stuff so long."


Reno County's Lutz said his department continues to go to every rural town to do daily checks at businesses and elevators to make sure everything is OK and that business owners locked up their buildings.

Country elevator operators need to do their part, too, Lutz said.

"Don't make it easy for them," he said. "Try not to be a victim, by making sure stuff is locked up and out of view. Locks keep honest people honest."

Anderson at KFSA said elevator operators should implement a closing time inspection program, use security cameras and install adequate lighting. He also suggested background checks and drug testing for all employees and the use of deadbolt locks and security systems.

Those passing by should also be on the alert.

"When someone drives by and sees something unusual, call in, and we'll check it out," said Lutz.

Marlow said she and her husband have installed more lights and electronic surveillance measures. Sylvia's Mathes said he leaves more lights on and has changed all the locks.

Meanwhile, Haviland cooperative manager Stark said they already have good lighting and security cameras, which did capture a good photo of the getaway vehicle.

It was eye-opening, Marlow said. Taking the necessary precautions is worth it.

"There is a lot of dollars worth of stuff at an elevator," she said.

Ehrlich, with Cairo's Turon location, said the Turon office was broken into last month, but he doesn't think it was related to the recent string of elevator thefts.

"I think it was kids," he said. "They never took anything big - just ice cream and summer sausage."