Monday, July 23, 2012

Oil field thieves hunted from the sky: Aircraft camera allows deputies close up from afar

HOBBS, N.M. (KRQE) - One of the state's biggest money-making industries has become a livelihood for thieves, as they pick apart the equipment in seclusion. Now, law enforcement is taking to the sky to catch them in the act. 

Lea County Sheriff's Deputies survey the land in a Cessna 206 Stationair, looking for criminal activity.

"That's part of this Sheriff's department's philosophy on crime fighting, is to take a proactive approach on things," explained Major Jim Wilmeth, Lea County Undersheriff. "We have a strong interest in helping our strongest industry stay successful in the county."

Which is why deputies have taken to the sky. Oil field thefts are one of the main problems Lea County Sheriff's Deputies deal with. But, with Forward Looking Infrared, or "FLIR," on a high definition camera, it's the criminals who are being hunted.

The HD camera located on the right wing of the aircraft, allows deputies to track movement from the ground from up to 11,000 feet away. Activity on the ground can be seen close-up on a laptop by an operator and investigators can track and record action from afar.

At night, the camera senses heat, which shows deputies exactly where cars and people are, that would otherwise go unnoticed.

"They're busy doing whatever they're doing on the lease, they may not catch on that there's a small aircraft that's floating around on top of them, filming what's going on" Wilmeth said.

Deputies in the air often have investigators on the ground, working in tandem. They patrol on ATVs, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

"A lot of times they'll cut the line to the box that goes to the pump jack, and we look for that," said one investigator.

Wilmeth said 150 lbs. of copper can net a thief more than $500, and three times as much for the higher-grade copper. However, he emphasized, replacing the equipment and fixing the damages costs companies far more than that.

Wilmeth says common oil field tools, such as a set of tongs, could cost around $20,000 and can be sold for $5,000 to $7,500 on the black market. The department hopes to thwart these crimes.

"We work very diligently to make sure that the criminal element knows that we're out there, we are looking for them," said Wilmeth.

The Sheriff's Department won't say how many thieves they've caught in the act using the plane, but Wilmeth did say that it's provided them some good leads.

Oil field crimes have cost companies more than $200,000 over the last year.

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