Employees reporting to JTS Tree and Landscape Co. Oct. 12 were met with an unpleasant surprise: The batteries from all of their trucks, as well as their chippers and stump machines, had been stolen overnight.
"It shut us down. We had crews scheduled on (Oct. 12). That's the day the crews went out to start the trucks and nothing would start," said JTS office manager Jobie McCoy. "We had to cancel work on Saturday. We had to hire a mechanic to come in and install the new batteries."
JTS was one of about 50 businesses in northeast Franklin and southern Delaware counties hit by vehicle battery thieves in late September and October.
Westerville police arrested three people last week who stand accused of stealing hundreds of batteries from commercial vehicles over the last month.
Westerville police Lt. Paul Scowden said Michael Starkey, 26, primarily acted alone in stealing batteries from vehicles parked on commercial lots, such as moving-truck rental businesses or landscaping businesses.
Lauren Mann, 22, and Jeremy May, 27, are charged with helping Starkey sell the stolen batteries at various recycling centers, Scowden said.
All three, who are Columbus residents, face felony charges.
Reports of battery thefts from businesses began in mid-September, with thieves taking between five and 15 batteries from each location, Scowden said.
"Pretty much every night, he was going out and doing this," Scowden said of Starkey. "It took a little bit of investigation, but we figured it out and started following them."
Police were able to make the arrests after obtaining search warrants and watching the suspects, Scowden said.
Though the three would have received a small amount, perhaps $10 for each battery stolen, they caused extensive damage, Scowden said.
"Right now, we can prove around $50,000 (in damages), but I would guess it's going to be well over $100,000 by the end," he said.
At JTS, McCoy said the thieves caused electrical damage to the equipment when removing batteries.
In all, he said, the business suffered about $4,000 in damage, which it paid for out of pocket because the equipment and the vehicles are covered under separate insurance policies.
The thieves cost another $4,000 to $5,000 in lost work, McCoy said, during a time when the business generally is wrapping up its busy season and preparing for the winter lull.
"What hurts you on this side of it, this time of year is, it's money you put aside to help get you through the winter time, and now you're just throwing it away," McCoy said.
Generally, Scowden said, thefts of vehicle batteries are rare, and he attributed the string of thefts to a need for the suspects to obtain drug money.
JTS has been in Westerville since the 1970s, McCoy said, and it's only suffered one other theft, when someone broke into a vehicle causing about $10,000 in damage about 12 years ago.
McCoy said the crime is disheartening, especially knowing that there are no repercussions for the businesses that bought the stolen batteries.
"This is out of hand, especially in the Westerville area," McCoy said. "I think it's awful."