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Grease bandits strike as biofuel demand rises

As the price of this waste product and biodiesel ingredient has risen, so have thefts.

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"Everybody gets a kick out of it, thinks it's funny – 'Oh, how weird that somebody would steal it'. But it's a serious crime, and it hurts all of the reputable guys," says Rosenzweig. He estimates he can lose a couple hundred dollars for every full container. "You lose enough of those every week, or every month, and it starts to hurt."

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Just who owns the grease can be a slippery legal question, according to Houston attorney Jon Jaworski. He's defended clients in more than 150 grease cases and refers to himself as "the grease lawyer."

For years, grease was put out in barrels next to the trash and picked up by verbal agreement. After a court ruling found that arrangement to be a free-for-all, he says, collectors drew up written contracts and provided branded bins. Collection companies say that once the grease hits the container, it's theirs.

"It's really a question mark to me," says Mr. Jaworski. "Do they own the grease because it's put in the container, or do they own the grease at the end of the month when they pay the restaurant?"

He's defended several dozen cases in court and lost only one, he says. He started making clients promise to clean up before coming to his office after one visitor tracked dark footprints on his carpet and stained a chair. The smell didn't leave until three weeks and a fumigation later.

"Juries are amazed by the time and effort put in to try to convict people for stealing stuff that is rancid," Jaworski says.

Larry Findley, a former San Antonio policeman, has spent 17 years pursuing poachers for Griffin. He says they run the gamut from poor immigrants who are given a pickup, some barrels, and a bucket by a middleman, to organized rings with their own tanker trucks.

And now, there's also well-meaning people taking grease to make biodiesel at home. Christopher Griffin of Griffin Industries notes that media love to highlight the local environmentalist who makes bio-fuel. One such report showed a professor getting grease from a Griffin-marked bin.

"You've got people who never considered being a thief out there taking grease thinking it's OK. So now it's really spiking," says Mr. Findley.

Stopping hard-core grease grabbers is tricky, because they usually strike at night. Findley and his colleague, a retired Texas Ranger, use police surveillance techniques. They've even persuaded a thief to wear a hidden mic to nail his buyer.

The detective duo has put two thieves into the penitentiary. More common are fines of $500 to $1000 and a few days in jail. A third conviction can draw sentences of nine months to a year.

Word spreads quickly as far as 500 miles away after any crackdown. But rather than stop, the thieves often just take from different companies or go to different states.

"Once they get into it, it's really hard to turn them," says Findley, who notes he sometimes deals with third-generation grease thieves. "It's almost embarrassing as someone in law enforcement to say that the best you can almost hope for is to move them."