ELKTON — Cecil County Sheriff’s Office detectives used one of the agency’s two recently purchased drones to locate nearly $400,000 in stolen construction equipment stashed behind a barn on an Elkton-area property, police reported.
Marking a major break in a joint investigation by CCSO and police in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania into a construction equipment theft ring, the drone surveillance led to the arrest of one suspect, an Elkton resident, whom investigators have declined to identify because of the ongoing probe, police said. More arrests are expected, police added.
It also marked the first official CCSO drone mission since six agency deputies and Sheriff Scott Adams earned their FAA licenses to fly the small unmanned aircraft systems after purchasing the units with seized funds, passing a written exam and receiving practical flight training earlier this year.
“Outside of training operations, this is first time we put one up and we are pleased with the outcome,” Adams commented Thursday during a press conference at CCSO headquarters, where representatives of Delaware State Police, New Jersey State Police and other involved agencies were in attendance.
As it turns out, Adams is the one who piloted the drone above the periphery of the suspect property in the 2000 block of Barksdale Road, off Appleton Road, on March 9. Using the drone’s mounted camera, Adams videotaped 19 pieces of stolen construction equipment valued at approximately $394,000.
That equipment had been stolen from construction sites in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania over several months and includes excavators, augers, backhoes, trailers, stump grinders, chippers, bulldozers and at least one car hauler, police reported.
As of Thursday, 11 pieces of that stolen construction equipment — valued at an estimated $243,000 — had been returned to their rightful owners, according Lt. Michael Holmes, a CCSO spokesman.
“We still need to identify the owners of eight pieces of stolen equipment,” Holmes said, noting that that equipment is valued at about $151,000.
Holmes reported that the Barksdale property apparently served as a storage place for equipment stolen by people involved in the theft ring and that, as of Thursday, investigators had no official record of any equipment stolen in Cecil County.
“We do believe that some thefts occurred in Cecil County, but we haven’t been able to confirm that yet,” Holmes said. “The (recovered) construction equipment wasn’t stolen all at once. It was stolen a piece or two at a time over several months. Some of the stolen equipment was actually used on construction jobs. We believe that multiple suspects are involved in this and we do expect to make more arrests.”
As of Thursday, investigators hadn’t determined if the people involved in the theft ring planned to sell the stolen construction equipment or use it.
DSP Sgt. Richard Bratz said the Delaware thefts date back to October and occurred at construction sites off the U.S. Route 40 and Delaware Route 896 corridors, short distances from the Cecil County line.
CCSO detectives started their investigation on March 9 at the behest of the NJSP, which had developed an Elkton resident as a suspect in the thefts of several pieces of heavy-duty construction equipment in that state, police reported.
“Surveillance operations were conducted where the suspect was observed traveling between Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. The suspect was identified several times frequenting a piece of property in the 2000 block Barksdale Road,” Holmes explained.
About that same time, CCSO investigators had received a tip concerning a man who allegedly had stolen several pieces of construction equipment from several states, Holmes noted.
CCSO investigators went to the Barksdale property, but, from the ground, they were unable to establish probable cause to search.
“It’s very large piece of property. From the road, we couldn’t see anything,” Holmes said.
So Adams piloted one of the agency’s drones above the perimeter of that property and made an aerial videotape, which later revealed the stolen construction equipment behind a large pole barn, police said.
That led to a court-approved search of that property, as well as one of the suspect’s Elkton residence, police added.
“At the suspect’s residence, investigators located multiple keys to the construction equipment that linked him to the stolen property,” Holmes said.
It also led to CCSO investigators recovering three additional pieces of stolen equipment from a property on Telegraph Road (Route 273) property in Fair Hill, police reported.
NJSP Det. C.J. Tortella, lead investigator in the New Jersey cases, said CCSO’s drone surveillance played a critical role in the joint investigation into the construction equipment theft ring.
“It’s a new experience for me to see the use of drones in police work,” Tortella said, noting that his agency doesn’t have drones. “It definitely found a big piece of the puzzle and, in the grand scope of things, it saved us a lot of time.”
Bratz expressed a similar sentiment.
During the press conference, Adams explained that, without the drone, it would have required “more legwork and more time” to establish probable cause to search the Barksdale property.
He noted that, under a mutual aid agreement, CCSO could have requested either a Maryland State Police or a DSP helicopter crew to fly over that Barksdale Road property for surveillance.
However, according to CCSO Chief Deputy Gerald Widdoes, it would have been costly to do so.
“A helicopter costs $5,800 an hour. By the time a helicopter flew up from Martin (State Airport in Baltimore County) to here, did the aerial surveillance and flew back, it would have been over $6,000,” Widdoes commented.
CCSO spent $12,000 on one of its drones and $1,400 for the other. The agency plans to use the drones in a variety of situations, including assisting deputies with crowd control and documenting crime and accident scenes.
The list of recovered construction equipment includes a John Deere 50G Excavator valued at $60,000 and stolen in Delaware; a Case Skid Steer valued at $45,000 and stolen in Pennsylvania and Kubota KX71-3 excavator valued at $20,000 and stolen in Pennsylvania.