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Screw Job: San Francisco's Construction Boom Gives Rise to a Higher Class of Criminal 

Wednesday, Jun 18 2014

It was nine years ago, but Ewen Utting will never forget that day. That was the day someone ripped off his tools. Every last one of them. Someone breached the job site on Russian Hill and hauled away the lot. The contractor sighs deeply. The sense of loss is profoundly personal. It's emasculating. And expensive.

So, Utting remembers that day well. It was, he adds, also the day his first daughter was born.

Last month, someone again breached Utting's job site a stone's throw from Buena Vista Park; there would be no birth later in the day to even the score. Even now, weeks later, Utting still marvels about the professionalism of the men who cleaned him out. They ascended the scaffolding with Spiderman-like aplomb, scrambled over the roof, and clambered into the half-built home's exposed posterior. Somehow, without waking the entire Upper Haight, they popped the locks on two SmartCar-sized "job boxes" housing Utting's tools. And what a wealth of tools it was: five nail guns; skill saws; a concrete hammer; a pair of rebar benders — just the pair of those were worth $6,000. For good measure, they ran off with the wheelbarrow-sized air compressor, which was chained to a steel post, itself a replacement for a compressor that had been filched the year prior.

Utting conservatively pegs his loss at $18,000. He's not insured for this: The premiums and deductibles are high enough you end up essentially paying for your tools every three years. He didn't report the theft to the police because — well, frankly, what the hell good would that do?

Gone is gone. Utting hightailed it to the hardware store and bought a new compressor. Three days later, it broke down. Then the next one broke down. Right now, he's borrowing a friend's compressor.

No one has stolen it yet.

Ever since the odd stone or henge floated off the Stonehenge job, builders have been plagued by construction-site burglaries. Veteran contractors regaled your humble narrator with tales of saws yanked from upper stories by their power cords and carted off by shambling junkies or homeless impresarios with shopping carts full of power tools attempting to sell them to the very parties from which they were nicked.

But, as one could say about so much in San Francisco these days, things have reached a strange, new realm of being. With home renovations ubiquitous around the city, construction-site burglars are presented with an embarrassment of riches. A technologically savvy miscreant can assemble a hit list by merely perusing the Planning and Building Department websites without even leaving home.

The San Francisco Police Department has not yet fulfilled our request for several years of construction site burglary data. But cops and contractors agree: As the entire city becomes a de facto residential renovation site, incidents of construction-zone burglaries are on the rise. Many victims, like Utting, don't even bother to report the crime.

And, even more intriguingly, contractors now fall prey to a higher class of thief.

"When they leave a job — it's perfect. There won't be any marks on the hardwood floors. There aren't any marks on the cabinets. They're tradesmen," gushes Sean Keighran, the president of the Residential Builders Association. "They'll come into a job site on a Saturday night, work all night, and finish up Sunday morning. They'll tape the windows so no one notices the lights. And they'll fill a moving truck."

There is an upside to being victimized by a more professional class of victimizer: "At least your building's not thrashed."

Twelve-foot fences lending construction sites the appearance of penitentiaries are mounted with ease. Shipping containers are compromised via blowtorches. Bolt-cutters the size of Excalibur make short work of spectacularly expensive, tempered steel locks.

Like all things, the more money there is in the game, the higher the class of player.

It's 84 degrees by mid-morning, and the sun beats down on the blacktop of a San Jose parking lot built for upwards of 1,200 vehicles. The flea market across the four-lane boulevard is so vast that it has its own set of intersecting numerical and alphabetical streets. Strains of the salsa band playing at the central median also help reinforce a sense of where you are.

Where you are, according to dozens of San Francisco contractors and police officers, is the repository of the tools pilfered from the city's remodeling jobs. In addition to no fewer than seven varieties of T-shirt celebrating captured fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the power tool selection here is breathtaking.

Cordless drills and skill saws and jackhammers and strip nailers are laid out like a smorgasbord. Venders are happy to tout the attributes of their $480 laser levelers, their $550 rotary hammers, or a hulking magnetic drill of the sort no one not in the construction business could possibly need, yours for $1,300, pre-haggling.

Query sellers how they came across such fantastic hardware, however, and one runs into a collective code of Omertà. "I only know the prices, man," says one. "Ha ha ha. I hate my job," offers another. "I wait until it rains and there's a rainbow," says a third. "And then I follow the rainbow to the tools."

San Francisco, it seems, is where the rainbow ends.

On June 9, 2012, interlopers wearing vests and hard hats entered contractor Joe Cassidy's construction site at Market and Dolores. They only made off with one tool. But it was a big one: a 2006 Gradall 544D1055 forklift, capable of hoisting a 5-ton object to a height of 55 feet.

The thieves nonchalantly motored the 34,000-pound forklift — painted an eye-catching shade of royal blue — past the fence and into the San Francisco night. They were never apprehended.

Cassidy dutifully filled out a police report. But, two weeks later, he ended up spotting the bus-sized vehicle himself. It was abandoned in an alleyway in Bernal, around four miles from his site.

It remains unknown what the purloined Gradall was used to lift — in every sense of the word.

Cassidy, like so many San Francisco builders, has adopted a siege mentality. He now keeps his tools locked within a job box that is, itself, locked within a job box. Alarms are rigged to both. The lights are kept on at all hours. Cameras are mounted throughout the jobsite.

This is an expensive proposition. But the costs can be passed on to the customers. As in all things San Francisco these days, there is no shortage of money. There is no shortage of people willing to do anything for money.

And there is never a shortage of people willing to pay.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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