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Is Used Cooking Oil the 'New Copper'?

Thu, 09/08/2022 - 11:08
Used cooking oil was allegedly siphoned without permission from storage tanks at the Lobster Roll and numerous other restaurants via this pump installed in the back of a panel truck operated by people arrested in Kings Park last week.
Patrick McCall

Blue-claw crabs, copper catalytic converters, and . . . used cooking oil? Opportunistic thieves have gotten creative in their pursuit of ill-gotten gains in these inflationary times, but used cooking oil does not immediately spring to mind as a high-ticket product worthy of theft.

But it is a big problem on Long Island and one that visited the East End in recent weeks in a cooking-oil crime wave that hit numerous local and regional restaurants, including Harvest on Fort Pond in Montauk and the Lobster Roll on Napeague.

Indeed, an arrest in Kings Park early in the morning on Friday of two men allegedly operating an illicit cooking-oil gathering business out of Brentwood can be traced back to the recent theft of hundreds of gallons of used cooking oil from the Lobster Roll by the same men, according to the head of a security and investigations firm that provides services to companies contracted to collect oil from the restaurants.

Patrick McCall of the McCall Risk Group, based in Southampton and New York City, works with six companies that contract with restaurants to collect used cooking oil that is then turned into biodiesel at a New Jersey refinery. It can be a lucrative if unpredictable business subject to the prices at the gas pump.

The pilfered cooking-oil phenomenon was a big deal in 2014 through 2017, said Mr. McCall, who noted that “the price of oil was crazy then — and cooking oil was the ‘new copper.’ Crooks found the black market,” he added, “but then the price of oil tanked.”

Now the cooking-oil crooks are at it again and in force, with the price of diesel hovering at more than $5 a gallon even as the price of gasoline has been dropping through the summer. “That’s driving up the price” of used cooking oil, said Mr. McCall. 

In hopes of catching the perpetrators in the act, Mr. McCall has had security crews deployed throughout the Island in recent weeks to track the movement of the crew.

After getting caught in the act by an employee while pilfering oil at the Lobster Roll recently, the crew was pulled over in Montauk, but released by East Hampton Town Police, according to Paul DeAngelis, chef and manager at the Lobster Roll.

Mr. McCall said the outfit recently hit more than 35 places in a single night and has been operating from Greenport to Southold to UpIsland and the South Fork — and some of the thefts have been witnessed firsthand by his team.

“We recently observed thefts in West Islip and Bay Shore — by the same people in the truck that people had identi fied in East Hampton just the night before,” said Mr. McCall in an interview prior to the arrests in Kings Park.

This week, he sent a text noting that “we witnessed some thefts in progress on Thursday night — Suffolk police coordinated with us and made arrests — same individuals in the theft at Lobster Roll and Harvest.”

Following that arrest of two adults and an unidentified juvenile, Mr. McCall sent a follow-up email claiming the men were also “responsible for thefts in East Hampton, Montauk, Southampton, Southold, Riverhead, Bay Shore, West Islip, Selden, Medford, Coram, and Woodbury.”

A public information officer with the Suffolk County Police Department said in an email that Wilson Reyes, 28, and Hector Umanzor, 33, both of Brentwood, allegedly “stole approximately $150 worth of cooking oil from 34 Indian Head Road in Kings Park” on Friday at approximately 12:40 a.m. “They were arrested and charged with [petty] larceny.”

Both men were previously cited in an East Hampton Town Police report prompted by the Lobster Roll chef and manager after they were alleged to have twice stolen used cooking oil from the restaurant in August.

“Last Sunday they were here again in our lot,” Mr. DeAngelis said this week. Mr. McCall said that that night, there were “about 10 thefts in East Hampton.”

One of the Lobster Roll’s employees caught the alleged thieves after he happened to come back to the restaurant to pick up some forgotten possessions after closing time, said Mr. DeAngelis, “and they were here. He asked them, ‘What are you doing?’ They made believe it was all legitimate — they had all the approvals and et cetera. And then [the employee] called me and said it looks like the same truck from last time.”

The crew had arrived around 2 a.m. on Sunday, and Mr. DeAngelis said he followed their panel truck containing a pump into Montauk, where they pulled into a convenience store. “The police then pulled them over and then let them go.”

The oil absconders told town police that their business was called Grease Service Cooking Oil Collector, and claimed, according to the police report, that they’d been told by the “old owner/manager of the Lobster Roll that they had permission to remove the used cooking oil.”

Mr. DeAngelis countered that they did not have permission, and the men said they understood and wouldn’t remove the Lobster Roll’s used oil again. No charges were filed, but those men would soon be arrested and charged in Kings Park. 

The Aug. 29 police report noted that Lobster Roll has a contract with a different grease removal service, “and as a result the other removal service is becoming frustrated.” That removal service is represented by Mr. McCall’s security firm.

Mr. DeAngelis said the crew rigged their pump with small hoses and a one-inch pipe that could go through the locked grates that enclose the cooking oil containers at the Lobster Roll.

They made off with hundreds of gallons of used cooking oil, he said. “We fry a lot of shrimp, fish, and chips,” said Mr. DeAngelis, “and we change the oil every day.”

“The perpetrators would type up phony run sheets, and they’d create phony managers and subcontractors,” Mr. McCall said. “It’s a gritty, weird problem.”

Mr. McCall said he would be meeting with East Hampton Town Police in short order to “sign criminal complaints so E.H.P.D. can make arrests” related to the thefts at Harvest and the Lobster Roll.

Detective Sgt. Ryan Hogan of the East Hampton Town Police Department said on Tuesday that officers here had been planning a sting operation, but that the arrests in Kings Park happened before they could carry it out.

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