PORT RICHEY — Cpl. Michael Toczylowski saw a suspicious truck behind the Chili's on U.S. 19 about 2:30 a.m. Thursday and pulled it over. There was oil dribbling out of equipment on the truck. It smelled of fried food.
Toczylowski had read a Pasco County Sheriff's Office report to be on the lookout for people stealing restaurant cooking oil to sell it to refineries that made biodiesel fuel, worth about $1.50 a gallon. He asked the two men what they were doing with the oil.
"At first they said it was their job," said Toczylowski, 33. "They said it was 100 percent legal."
According to the Sheriff's Office, it wasn't.
Bogdan T. Yordanov, 19, and Aldin Bajric, 20, both of St. Petersburg were arrested and charged with burglarizing a business.
Prior to the Chili's theft, the owner of a Dairy Queen on State Road 54 in New Port Richey called in a report to the Sheriff's Office of stolen oil. Deputy Hope Sullenberger said the man told her his business had been hit several times this year. He said he's lost thousands of dollars in not being able to sell the used oil.
"This was the first call of that kind" that Sullenberger, 25, has had in her career, she said.
Other officials at the Sheriff's Office said they can't remember another incident of oil thefts prior to this year.
As Sullenberger researched, she said she found more cases peppered throughout Florida.
"It's not only happening in Pasco, but this is a statewide issue," she said.
Lt. Brian Prescott, 43, said no arrests have been made in the Dairy Queen thefts and the Chili's case is still under investigation. He would not comment on where the two suspects were allegedly selling the oil. He said 3.5 billion gallons of cooking oil are generated in the U.S. every year. He said this crime attracts the same people who steal metal to sell it to recycling plants.
"It's becoming a highly lucrative business," Prescott said.
He said they are still investigating the magnitude of this oil theft ring.
"This wasn't two guys driving down the road, finding some grease and saying, 'Let's sell it,'" he said, adding that Bajric and Yordanov had siphoning tools with them.
Prescott said many restaurants don't know they are being hit because the thieves only take a portion of the oil. Most restaurants don't measure how much oil they have, he said, and the oil is usually stored in canisters behind the restaurants.
Sheriff Chris Nocco urged businesses to have cameras behind their stores, with signs saying these premises are taped.
He said restaurants figure in the money they make selling the oil into their business models. So losing the oil means losing money, which could lead to laying off employees or not being able to stay in business.
"It is a loss to the business community," Nocco said.
Bajric and Yordanov were both released Thursday from the Pasco jail, each on $10,000 bail.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.