HUDSON — They were loading the last of their loot when the deputy pulled up.
Two storm drain covers had already been yanked from the ground in the Gulfside Estates subdivision and were sitting in the back of a gray GMC pickup truck. Two teens were lugging a third grate, a Pasco sheriff's report states.
They dropped it when they saw the patrol car.
Casey Ray Paquette, 18, was arrested Feb. 27 on a charge of grand theft. His alleged accomplice, a 17-year-old boy whose name is being withheld due to his age, was taken to the Juvenile Detention Center. Their arrest report says the two intended to sell the grates, which cost $146.70 apiece, as scrap metal.
They weren't the first to come up with this idea. In past years, one or two grates would go missing every now and again, said Dianna Rawleigh, Pasco's public works manager. Then, during one night in September 2010, she said, 12 went missing.
And the thieves haven't stopped.
County reports show 126 grates and manhole covers have been pried up around the county since that night, at a total cost of about $18,000. The victim of this crime: taxpayers.
Worse, Rawleigh said, "now you've got a gaping hole beside a travel lane. It could damage a car, but it would seriously hurt a human."
Pasco Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said he hasn't seen an injury from exposed drains yet.
Also figuring into costs is county workers' time. When grates are stolen, the holes have to be measured again. Steel plates have to be fastened over the holes until new grates are installed. Then, workers have to call around to foundries for competitive pricing on the custom-sized grates.
Rawleigh recalls when 12 grates went missing from Chancey Road in Zephyrhills. At $204.40 apiece, the county paid $2,452.80 to replace the weight-bearing metal. Almost a month went by before the new grates were shipped in. In the mean time, the county put steel plates over the holes, spending $5,000.
That money comes from a storm water utility fee paid by county residents.
In recent months, county commissioners and workers have been cooking up ways to thwart the thieves. Rawleigh has considered buying a mold from the foundries to stamp "PASCO COUNTY" into the grates. But that would cost extra. She's also talked about spray painting them orange, or even lubricating the grates so they slip from bandits' fingers as they try to pull them up.
County commissioners on Feb. 7 approved an ordinance that would hold scrap metal dealers accountable for their exchanges.
The ordinance works similar to pawn shops, which are required to keep a database of purchases. If a grate went stolen, deputies could check the database for any items matching that description.
The ordinance also includes a page-long list of metal types that recyclers can no longer accept. Air conditioning parts, light poles, catalytic converters and guard rails are a few.
Other requirements for selling metal: A photo ID, thumb print and a vehicle (with registered license plate). All that goes into a statewide database where law enforcement can track sellers. Officers will investigate people who sell multiple times or who are suspiciously selling metal at different locations, said Pasco Sheriff's Detective Eric Pfenninger, who helped draft the ordinance.
Not a problem, said Tom Palazzolo, owner of STR Scrap Metal on Ridge Road. And he's not worried about a cut in business.
For years, he's been documenting those who sell him their scrap metal. He's seen people try to pass off everything from cemetery plaques, to street signs, to freshly stolen air conditioner coils. He turned them away.
"If someone rolls up on a bicycle with a brand new piece of copper in their hands, we might question them," he said.
But Palazzolo said he's worried those thieves won't be turned away everywhere.
Pasco, Hernando, Hillsborough and Sarasota counties have the same standards outlined in the ordinance, Pfenninger said. That could make Pinellas County an appealing place to sell stolen metal.
"We would be telling people 'we don't take it,' and someone else will," Palazzolo said.
That's why he and other members of the Florida Recycling Association have drafted a bill that would make metal recyclers all over the state have to abide by the same rules.
"As long as (the ordinance) is for everyone and it works," he said, "it's fine with me."