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Aug. 1, 2021

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‘It looked like a bomb went off.’ Portland man accused of ransacking businesses to steal heaps of metal

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PORTLAND — Michael Dean White called his business “Bestway Metals Recycling.”

The 56-year-old owner and manager certainly was industrious and his operation appeared lucrative.

White raked in $178,000 in 18 months, court records show.

He collected aluminum, copper and brass all over Portland. He then sold the piles of metal scrap to bigger recycling companies.

But for White, the name of his enterprise hinted at what he apparently thoughtwas the best way to get the metal: by stealing, police and prosecutors allege.

Police found that White ran his company from little more than a dirt patch beside a Northeast Portland road, where they said he parked his mobile home, a pickup, several trailers and a tangle of twisted stolen metal, spools of wire and burn bins used to strip insulated wire.

Officers arrested White last week on allegations of burglary, aggravated theft, possession and delivery of methamphetamine, possession of burglary tools, criminal mischief and unlawful possession of a firearm.

A judge set his bail at $1.2 million after a Multnomah County prosecutor cited the alleged frequency of White’s wee-hours forays and his past record.

“He has already caused significant financial harm to this community,” Deputy District Attorney Kevin Demer wrote in a court affidavit. “He has recently carried a loaded firearm. He does not have a legitimate job. Crime has paid exceptionally well for the defendant. The first step to hold him accountable is to hold him in jail.”

Owners and managers of several of the places dogged by metal thefts said they stopped calling police because they were getting hit so often.

Video caught White and several alleged accomplices spending hours overnight at multiple commercial properties loading up on stolen air conditions, plumbing equipment and other material to scrap, police and prosecutors said.

Investigators suspect White caused at least $8 million to $10 million in damage to more than a dozen businesses, Demer’s affidavit said.

Investigators tracked White driving his distinctive tan-and-gold Ford F-150 pickup two to three times a week, active between midnight and 5 a.m., they said.

He got paid cash during each of his more than 100 drop-offs to local metal recycling companiesfrom October 2019 through about two weeks ago, according to police and prosecutors.

White was able to avoid a state law that requires those recyclers to send a check to a confirmed address for each metal purchase – not hand over cash – when dealing with individual metal sellers. That’s because White had duly registered his company with the state on Oct. 11, 2019, though he said its principal location was in Albany.

White’s arrest last Wednesday marked his sixth since January 2020 – typically on similar charges but often dropped within a day or several days, court and jail records show.

In three of the arrests, it was because of insufficient evidence or additional investigation requested, said Brent Weisberg, a spokesman for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.

White has seven prior felony convictions, 18 misdemeanor convictions, two probation violations and 13 failure-to-appear-in- court allegations.

He has no driver’s license and receives $1,000 to $2,000 a month in unemployment checks, court records indicate.

“The defendant is a savvy criminal as shown by his efforts to register and use a shell company so that he can be paid in cash for stolen metal,” Demer wrote to the court.

“He has a motive to not appear if released,” Demer wrote, “as he has done in the past.”

‘IT WAS A TWO-NIGHT EVENT’

“It looked like a bomb went off,” Rhonda Stensrud said.

She and other staff had returned in May to Fantasy Video on Northeast Sandy Boulevard in the hopes of reopening after a 10-week pandemic closure.

They found a ladder propped up in the middle of the store leading to a gaping hole in the roof. Several large HVAC units had been cut and stolen from the rooftop.

Video surveillance showed White’s tan-and-gold pickup parked beside the business for three hours, Portland Officer Nicole Kennedy wrote in police reports. Its bed was empty when it arrived, but it was full of metal when it left hours later, the reports said.

The video captured one of the thieves grabbing what looked like a reciprocating saw from White’s truck and then several men dropping parts of the air conditioning units from the roof to the ground, according to Kennedy.

The footage also showed the intruders lowering a ladder into the retail space through a hole where an air-conditioning unit had been and stealing store inventory before they climbed back up the ladder and back onto the roof, according to Stensrud and the affidavit.

“It was a two-night event,” Stensrud said. “They completely destroyed the entire ventilation and air vac system on our roof, during a pandemic. They destroyed the units, cut all the electrical and then took the things they wanted inside and left.”

In all, the thieves took six HVAC units from the Fantasy Video store May 12. The final repair bill: about $150,000 and three months to replace everything, Stensrud said.

Stensrud and staff opened anyway and worked through the construction but now she’s hired a security guard to come by at night – “just being fearful of a return visit,” she said.

Kennedy checked White’s metal sales for the week after the Fantasy Video break-in. Recyclers have been required since 2009 to maintain records on metal purchases.

The officer found White received $820 one day and $383 on another day for copper, brass and copper/aluminum radiators – likely from the stolen commercial air conditioning units and representing 1% of the damage caused, according to the affidavit.

‘IT DROVE ME NUTS’

About 5:45 a.m. this past Feb. 7, Terrell Garrett stirred awake and reached for his phone.

Garrett owns Greenway Recycling, a construction demolition recycling business on Northwest St. Helens Road.

He had turned off the notifications on his cell but decided to check since he was awake. The notifications go off when a motion detector trips at his company.

He was astonished to see a string of alerts. He quickly tapped into his live security video feed and watched as strangers walked around the grounds, grabbing tools and equipment and even driving one of his company trucks around.

It was the third time Greenway Recycling had been hit in three weeks, he said. He called 911 and stayed on the line, narrating the burglary while seeing it unfold.

The thieves had slipped below his 7,000-volt electric fence and were tying downabout $42,000 worth of tools on the company truck.

One of the suspects had grabbed the truck to drive around the lot trying to figure out how to get out, Garrett said.

Portland Officer Jeffrey Livingston responded. Two other officers and a police dog were sent to the scene. Soon, Garrett showed up, as well.

When Livingston arrived, White was standing next to a company truck loaded with stolen tools and equipment, according to a court affidavit.

White then ran off into the shadows of the sprawling industrial property, police and prosecutors said. Two other suspects already had fled.

The police dog found White hiding under an industrial trash compactor, according to the affidavit.

Police found $9,516 in cash on White and a loaded .22-caliber revolver in his front pocket, the affidavit said.

Garrett said he and his wife usually go to their business first thing on Sunday mornings to do their regular bookkeeping.

“What if we had blundered into it. Somebody could have been shot,” he said.

Garrett estimated more than $40,000 worth of tools and materials had been stolen that morning.

“We’re a mom-and-pop operation,” he said. “When they steal stuff from you, it hurts.”

Garrett said it also hurt when he learned that White spent only hours behind bars.

White was booked into the downtown jail in Portland at 8:39 a.m. that day on allegations of second-degree burglary, unlawful use and entry of a vehicle and felon in possession of a firearm. He posted 10% of his $17,500 bail and was released at 6:49 p.m., jail records show.

The next day, the charges were dropped, as prosecutors sought additional information.

“It drove me nuts,” Garrett said. “It is a feeling of violation, of anger and frustration. I was really feeling lost in the woods about this for a while.”

TRACKING DEVICE PUT ON PICKUP

Police had started to investigate White last year but got delayed when mass social justice protests consumed the city last summer, according to Demer, the prosecutor.

Investigators assigned to the case obtained a warrant to put a tracking device on White’s truck in May 2020, according to the affidavit, but they were soon redirected to help respond to the demonstrations.

Then the North Precinct officers who been investigating the repeat property crimes were reassigned to fill patrol shifts so the Police Bureau could reach minimum staffing requirements, according to the affidavit.

Police recently renewed the investigation and placed another tracking device on White’s car this month, according to police and prosecutors.

Officers arrested White on Northeast 33rd Drive, where he had been living in the motor home. They seized his vehicles and photographed the area, including the pits allegedly used to burn the insulation off wire to leave the more lucrative raw copper for sale.

“You’ve got to think about what’s the cleanup going to be like — who knows what potential hazardous materials are left there,” said Washington County sheriff’s Detective Aaron Massey.

Massey wasn’t involved in White’s case but investigates property crime including metal thefts and has more than 27 years of experience in law enforcement.

“There’s a lot of other concerns that come with that kind of behavior,” he said.

Metal theft is a challenging crime to pursue, he said, because there’s usually little to tie a thief to the stolen metal unless video or sales records exist.

That’s why it’s important for businesses to have good surveillance systems, place GPS trackers on large pieces of equipment or hire private security that can swing by a job site regularly as a deterrent, Massey said.

White has been assigned a public defender but hasn’t yet entered a plea. His defense lawyer, Christopher W. Howard, has declined comment on the case.

White is due back in court this Friday to face a likely indictment, which is expected to result in more charges, according to investigators.

“What I’m learning is my deal was kind of the tip of the iceberg,” Garrett said.

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