Sheriff detective's business is well site crimes

Oil and gas companies are also doing their part to stay ahead of crime trends and make well site theft less attractive for criminals, said Sindelar.

Leigh Black Irvin
lirvin@daily-times.com
San Juan County Sheriff's Office Detective Mike Sindelar talks about well site crimes.
  • The San Juan County Sheriff's Office Rural Crimes Unit borrowed its framework from a Texas program called Wise Eyes.
  • For the past five years, the Sheriff's Office has averaged about 175 cases of well site crimes per year.
  • Police say the most common crime on well sites is larceny and vandalism.
  • To patrol well sites, the Rural Crimes Unit uses a small fleet of off-road vehicles donated by oil and gas industry partners.

FARMINGTON — Isolated oil and gas well sites can be enticing to criminals looking to loot valuable equipment, metal and product.

Although San Juan County Sheriff's Office patrol deputies are usually the first to come across well site crime scenes, responsibility for investigating these cases usually falls on the desk of Detective Mike Sindelar with the Sheriff's Office Rural Crimes Unit.

"The Rural Crimes Initiative started in 2006 because the industry had been suffering losses for decades," he said. "The Bureau of Land Management and those in the (oil and gas) industry came together to determine what program they could create that would address the problems."

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Sindelar said the Rural Crimes Initiative borrowed its framework from a Wise County, Texas, program called "Wise Eyes," which encourages cooperation among agencies and the public to help detect, report and solve such crimes.

In the Rural Crimes Unit's first year of operation, Sindelar said, more than 500 oilfield crime cases were documented.

"As we began working cases, though, we started noticing that the same 25 to 30 people in the county were responsible for 95 percent of the crimes," he said. "Most of them had either worked in the oilfield or were still employed in the oilfield. As we began arresting these individuals, we saw the cases start to come down."

For the past five years, Sindelar said, the Sheriff's Office has averaged about 175 cases of well site crimes per year, a decrease he mostly attributes to getting the repeat offenders out of circulation.

The most common crime on well sites, Sindelar said, is larceny, or theft.

San Juan County Sheriff Office Detective Mike Sindelar talks about well site crimes at a well site near Aztec.

"We get vandalism as well, which I can't understand because there's no profit in that," he said. "The vandalism is usually from kids partying out near a well site."

Sindelar meets regularly with other officials and law enforcement officers including those from the BLM — as well as employees from private industry — to exchange information and compare crime trends.

To patrol well sites and conduct investigations, which are often located on rough or muddy roads, the Rural Crimes Unit utilizes a small fleet of off-road vehicles that were donated by oil and gas industry partners. The vehicles are also used to patrol other remote areas such as the north side of Navajo Lake, which has seen a dramatic decrease in crime since the patrols started, said Sindelar.

"It's a huge contribution," he said. "No government money went into the fleet, and the private companies continue to fund upgrades and maintenance for the vehicles. We also use them to assist other agencies with cases like body recoveries."

Sindelar said that up until about 10 years ago, most of the well site thefts involved stealing the well's flow meter, which were used to track the oil or gas well's production.

"They would sell them to salvage yards, but now the well sites are fully automated and the well data is sent directly to a central collection site," he said.

Currently, Sindelar said, the most common well site theft involves the well's batteries, followed by thefts of solar panels and drip condensate of product stolen off of trucks and tanks. Equipment that is stored in laydown yards can also be an attractive target for thieves.

Oil and gas companies are also doing their part to stay ahead of the thefts, Sindelar said, by placing video surveillance on the sites and marking equipment to make it difficult for thieves to re-sell it.

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Sindelar said the amount of return that thieves get from the thefts — if they are successful at unloading it — is marginal.

"What they're getting versus what they're risking is just not that much, and the damage that they do can be a huge financial hit for small oil and gas companies," he said.

Depending on the value of materials stolen, well site theft can be elevated to the level of a felony. There has been some success getting stricter laws passed for crimes such as these, Sindelar said.

"Last year, they added lead to the list of regulated materials because of all of the battery theft," he said. "There are no more lead smelters, so all lead in the country is either from recycling or it has to be imported, so any lead that turns up (at salvage yards) has to be reported. There was also a law passed prohibiting the purchase of altered copper wire. For the most part, salvage yards have been a real asset as far as calling in and reporting (suspected stolen material)," he said.

Like most crimes in the county, drug use and abuse is usually behind well site crimes, said Sindelar.

"Ninety-nine cents of every dollar stolen goes to buy methamphetamine," he said. "That's the really sad part. It's not going to buy food, and it's not going to pay for Junior to go through college. It's all driven by drugs, so I also talk a lot with Region II (Narcotics Task Force)."

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Oil and gas companies are also doing their part to stay ahead of crime trends and make well site theft less attractive for criminals, said Sindelar.

"Companies are taking an active interest in this because it impacts them, too," he said. "They contract with the battery manufacturers and stamp them with a notice, and they also use hidden holographs and particular colors associated with the company to make the equipment easily identifiable to salvage operators."

Sindelar said that because the 25,000-plus oil and gas wells in the county are spread out over thousands of miles, it's difficult for patrol officers to keep a handle on each well site. For this reason, his office depends greatly on other eyes and ears within the community.

San Juan County Sheriff Office Detective Mike Sindelar talks about well site crimes at a well site near Aztec.

"I do safety meetings to tell people what to look for so they'll know when to notify us. I also teach deputies how to process an oil and gas field crime scene since they're usually the first to come across a crime," he said, adding that useful information is also available on the Sheriff's Office Facebook page.

"Reporting is so important," he said. "The biggest thing is getting more eyes and ears out here so we'll have a higher ability to catch someone."

Sindelar knows that if and when the oil and gas industry picks up — as many are hoping will happen — so will his business.

"The amount of crime is directly proportional to the level of activity in the oil field," he said. "But we'd be happy if (the oil and gas industry) came back, for the sake of the community."

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621. 

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