Thieves target mowers

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Sheriff’s Office investigating lawn mower thefts at county facilities

By MINDY LUCAS

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a string of thefts involving professional-grade lawn mowers stolen from the county over the course of a five-month period in 2019, officials say.

Six lawn mowers with a total value of approximately $50,000 were stolen in incidents beginning in March, said Beaufort County’s Risk Management and Safety Director Kyle Jackson.

In the first two incidents in March and April, mowers were stolen off county trailers while county workers were weed-eating or performing other landscaping work on the Spanish Moss Trail and at Basil Green Park. The mowers were stolen once the workers were out of range of the trailers, Jackson said.

On April 19 and Aug. 4, thieves made off again with lawn mowers – this time from two county public works facilities, one on Benton Field Road and the other on Shanklin Road. In each of those incidents, two mowers were taken bringing the total value of all the stolen equipment to $49,644, according to Jackson.

In the April 19 incident, the suspects cut the fence to get into the facility. However, in the Aug. 4 incident, the suspects were able to get inside the Shanklin Road facility with a key and appeared to have keys to the mowers, Beaufort County Administrator Ashley Jacobs said.

Jacobs said the county has a surveillance video of that break-in which shows the suspects wearing some type of clothing similar to hazmat or painters coveralls with hoods to disguise their identities. They also seemed to know their way around the facility, she said.

“They walked right up to (the mowers). They knew where they were and where the cameras were,” she said.

Major Bob Bromage, spokesman for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, said no arrests have been made in any of the incidents yet. The sheriff’s office is investigating three of the four incidents while the April 4 incident falls under the jurisdiction of the City of Beaufort police, he said.

Asked if investigators were looking at the Aug. 4 incident, or any of the other incidents, as being an inside job, Bromage said it was too early to tell.

“Until we’re able to identify suspects, it is premature to say,” he said.

A connection among the incidents is being considered since there is a pattern of lawn mowers stolen, he said.

Since the thefts occurred, the county has undergone a security risk assessment with the assistance of the sheriff’s office and has taken measures to tighten security, Jacobs said.

This included replacing padlocks with combination locks, installing security lighting, and installing “proprietary” key switches for all mowing equipment, meaning each piece of equipment has its own key. The county has also installed new cantilever security gates, new security cameras and card readers.

In addition, the county is reviewing employee records of all employees who worked at the facilities.

Jacobs said she feels the stepped-up security measures are working since it has been six months since an incident has occurred.

“We aren’t going to have a work environment and a culture where we don’t have adequate security measures and we don’t take theft seriously,” said Jacobs, who started working for the county in April.

“We’re entrusted with public funds to purchase equipment, and it’s critical that we protect and secure these assets,” she said.

The string of thefts are the only incidents involving lawn mowers going back five years.

Insurance claims have been filed and the equipment has since been replaced.