Grease thefts picking up again, police say

For the second time this year, Wichita police are asking for the public’s help in catching thieves targeting used cooking oil.

Investigators are hoping to catch two men who stole the kitchen grease from a storage tank at the Sonic at 110 S. West St. shortly after midnight on Oct. 21. There has been a jump in grease thefts in recent months, police say.

“It goes in cycles,” Lt. Mike Hennessy said.

Police called attention to a similar surge in late January and eventually nabbed men based in Missouri who were coming to Wichita periodically to steal cooking oil. Police know those same men are not responsible for the Sonic theft.

The thieves typically strike several restaurants in one swoop after the businesses have closed for the night.

Restaurants used to have to pay companies to haul off their used cooking oil. But there’s now a demand for it.

The used oil can be sold for use in animal feed and bio-fuels, Hennessy said, and the recent surge in thefts can likely be traced to an increase in prices offered.

Right now, a full container of grease is worth several thousand dollars, said Chris Griffin, director of legal affairs for Griffin Industries, a subsidiary of Darling International, which has an operation in Wichita.

“Grease theft is a nationwide problem,” Griffin said in an e-mail response to a series of questions. “In our experience, grease thieves do not discriminate against competitors or our customers. It is a crime of opportunity and the thieves will steal the grease wherever the opportunity arises.”

Griffin said Darling Industries loses at least 30 percent of its grease volume to theft every year.

After the surge in thefts early this year, police urged restaurants to put locks on their used oil storage tanks.

“We don’t have that issue because our containers are locked,” said Martha Baker, marketing director for Stevens Enterprises, which has the Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill franchises in the Wichita metropolitan area.

But some thieves are finding ways to cut those locks and still get the oil, Hennessy said.

“Now that we encourage that they have locks they know when they’ve been tampered with,” Hennessy said.

It wasn’t unusual for businesses to not realize their oil had been stolen, he said, since the storage containers weren’t kept secured.

Thanks to the locks, he said, “we probably get more reports than we have in the past.”

Darling Industries has invested heavily in the design and strength of its grease containers, Griffin said, but the best defense is awareness of the problem.

He also wants grease buyers to ensure that the product they are purchasing is coming from legitimate sources that have the records and documentation to prove it.

“Grease is a commodity no different than diamonds or gold,” he said.