Grease rustlers

Black-market bandits have their eyes on that vat of used frying oil in the alley behind your local greasy spoon.

Published November 6, 2000 7:29PM (EST)

Jon Jaworski, a Houston attorney, first learned about grease theft in 1990. "I had a couple of Hispanic guys get busted in Galveston County at a Popeye's Fried Chicken," he recalls. "They just came into my office."

Jaworski got a not-guilty verdict, and then turned around and filed suit for malicious prosecution against the company that had accused his clients of grease theft. "I became, I guess, the hero of all the grease guys," he says, and grease cases began flooding in his door. Jaworski is known as "the grease lawyer," and has had calls on his expertise from as far away as Australia.

From Jaworski I learned of grease stings, grease vigilantes, alleged grease conspiracy and what I can only call grease embezzlement.

I first became intrigued by grease crime after reading a 1998 news story about two San Antonio, Texas, men convicted of stealing "thousands of pounds of used cooking grease." With the aid of hidden microphones, a surveillance camera and a former Texas Ranger, the two were caught in the act of buying 11,350 pounds of grease. An assistant manager for Griffin Industries, a grease company that said it was losing $10,000 a week from grease theft in Texas alone, estimated that there were 70 grease thieves operating in Texas. The grease thieves came by night to fast-food restaurants and filled their tankers with used grease from containers outside the restaurants, where the grease awaited pickup from companies like Griffin.

I clipped the story. At first all I cared about was the industry and the numbers. If there were 70 grease thieves in Texas, there ought to be around 120 grease thieves in my home state of California and perhaps 1,020 grease thieves nationwide. This is more than enough grease thieves to support an annual convention, which I felt could open with a no-host cocktail bar at my house.

For it is my assumption that grease thieves leave your place sparkling. Used cooking grease? Oh brother, I got it. I am sitting on a gold mine.

I simply wanted to know more about grease theft. But over time my outlook changed. Cloudy aspirations crystallized and grew: Why should I not become a grease thief myself? I've always felt that a glamorous life of international crime would make a great day job. But although I had a number of excellent outfits dreamed up, I'd never quite figured out what to steal. Jewelry has been done to death. Art is too subjective; I worry that I'd steal what I like, and nobody else would like it, and I wouldn't make money. I'd enjoy stealing secrets, but hardly anybody has any good ones.

Then I found out about grease theft. Perfect.

Where does the glamour reside? you may ask. Why, in the daring of it all, in crossing state lines to escape pursuit, in the tanker truck chase scenes and in lots and lots of dining out.

It's got novelty value. And best of all I'd be benefiting the environment, because selling used grease is all about recycling.

It couldn't miss. I began storyboarding a movie in my head. A caper flick about grease theft! Casting would be tricky, but I saw myself being played by someone like the young Grace Kelly, if only because of the obvious resemblance. But first I needed to learn a little more about the grease business, for that all-important opening sequence.

The grease industry, an offshoot of the rendering industry, revolves around a product called yellow grease. It comes from soy oil, canola oil and other oils that are used to cook everything from french fries to catfish fillets. Large fast-food restaurants generate hundreds of pounds of used oil every month. Smaller restaurants may filter and reuse the oil for a while, but ultimately it has to go, and you can't just pour it down the drain. As my friend Teresa remarks, "I'd be happy to have someone come and take my grease away." Thus we have an industry.

(Even though it's dainty enough to cook hush puppies in, it's an environmental contaminant. In fact, people who do bird rescue at oil spills say it's easier to wash fuel oil off a seabird than it is to wash vegetable oil off, and vegetable oil does more damage to the feathers. Don't get me started on the Great Wisconsin Butter Spill.)

Used grease is stored in a container, often outside the restaurant. Fifty-five-gallon drums are used in some places. More specialized containers look like small elongated dumpsters. Periodically people come to take the grease away. If they're from a medium-size or large rendering company, they pump it into a tanker truck. "It's a pretty interesting vehicle," says Rick Geise, director of marketing for Griffin Industries. Its customized trucks have hydraulic lifts that grab the grease containers, heave them over the top of the trailer and dump them into a holding compartment. "Then there's a hose system in the back so that we can hose off the container."

A small-time operator, on the other hand, might have what Geise describes as "a cheap little system with barrels."

Companies like Griffin have contracts with restaurants to come around regularly and pick up their grease. From Griffin's point of view, the grease is theirs the minute it enters the container. Others have taken the view that the grease is trash, that the grease is abandoned property, that anybody can take it away.

The fact that most small grease transactions are paid for in cash and may involve oral contracts, and the fact that it's dirty work not everyone wants to do, are attractive features for some entrepreneurs, including immigrants.

The grease collector, large or small, takes the grease away and renders it: It is heated to drive out water and filtered to remove what Geise calls "impurities -- papers or fries or any other sediment."

A rendering plant smells dreadful, not because of the lovely wholesome grease but because of the water and organic material that lie underneath the oil and rot. After the first time Jaworski, the grease lawyer, had grease case clients come to his office, he made them put covers on their shoes. "This stuff is rancid," says Jaworski. "The stuff reeks."

The part that doesn't reek, the yellow grease, is ready for sale. It is sold by the truckload, typically 44,000 pounds of grease per truck.

To learn today's yellow grease price, grease purveyors can consult the Chicago Yellow Sheet, a subscription-only publication that tracks the commodities business. Its commodity summary, viewable by nonsubscribers, repays inspection with hard-to-find news like "Loose eggs are adequate for current needs ... Cutlets continue to be mixed with some sources finding them difficult to place while others are well cleared ... Whole birds and wogs are about steady ... Toms are balanced ... Hams and bellies remain readily available and urged for sale."

Bill Warner, byproduct reporter for the Yellow Sheet, explains that while yellow grease goes into the manufacture of soap, makeup, clothing, rubber and detergents, its principal use is as a livestock feed additive. It makes the feed less dusty, which is more pleasant for the livestock, and causes less wear and tear on milling machinery. It's more palatable to the animals: "They like the grease the same as we do," says Warner. It helps the animals absorb fat-soluble vitamins. And, of course, it's a dense source of energy, which is important for animals like cattle and horses that have a hard time eating any more than they already do.

The principal competition for yellow grease is vegetable oil straight from the mills. As the price of soy oil goes up, the price of yellow grease goes up. And as soy oil goes down, so slithers yellow grease. And since people tend to steal stuff that has value, I fear that the deeper soy oil prices plunge, the harder it will be to find a thriving grease underworld.

(There are other forms of grease for sale, like brown grease or trap grease. Brown grease might come off the grill at a burger place, and is more meat-derived than yellow grease, but there's less of it and it's not as valuable as yellow grease. "We don't see many [grease] bandits on the trap sites," says Geise.)

Yellow grease, the object of my cupidity, is more valuable than brown grease, but just how valuable is yellow grease? (Yes, I know what you're thinking: "Holy hell! How much can I get for this stuff?") When I called Warner in October, the news was not good: Those big tanker truckloads were bringing a mere $7 a hundredweight ($7/cwt), or 7 cents a pound. (He was quoting me a Midwest price, he said, say around the Omaha River.) At that rate one of those 44,000-pound loads would bring just $3,080, hardly worth the stealing. And the 11,350 pounds of grease at stake in the 1998 case would bring $794.50.

In that case it was alleged that Griffin Industries was losing $10,000 a week to grease thieves in Texas alone. It was losing 142,857 pounds of grease? Wait -- when that case was tried, grease was going for 14 to 18 cents a pound. At that price they'd only have to be losing 55,556 pounds a week to grease larceny. (In 1996 yellow grease commanded a lordly 20 cents a pound.)

Warner said he'd heard some stories about grease theft, stories in which "people acting like they're scheduled to do grease pickups just ease in" and steal grease, stories from grease's glory days.

I liked the way the Bexar County District Attorney's Office put it: Grease theft, it said, was a multimillion-dollar fraud nationwide. Do the math, and keep it conservative: Just $2 million worth of grease at 18 cents a pound means 11,111,111 pounds of stolen grease. That's over 10 MILLION POUNDS OF STOLEN GREASE HURTLING DOWN OUR NATION'S HIGHWAYS!

But since then there's been a steady downward trend, especially with Malaysian palm oils entering the market. (I told you this was an international crime scene.) The only ray of hope for grease prices Warner mentioned was the advent of cold weather. In the cold the stock needs more calories, and so "we'll see a lot more interest in it as the weather gets cooler." (I will have to watch the futures market as I plan my big strike.)

Perfect growing conditions in the soy fields are good news for some, shattered dreams for others. Right this moment, grease theft is almost as passé as train robbery.

Still, soy farmers could have a disastrous year. Simultaneously Malaysia could convert from palm oil production to chardonnay grape vineyards. Grease prices could soar!

And even if they didn't, it could be one of those movies about the Last Caper. I see Paul Newman as the seasoned grease thief, coming out of retirement to do one last job and coaching me, the talented young rookie. Rene Russo would be great in the part, and not just because of the physical resemblance.

The falling price of grease helped explain something that had puzzled me. I had seen a story about two guys driving across the U.S. in a van with a diesel engine converted to burn cooking oil. The modifications were done by Justin Carven (who just got a degree in appropriate technology development) and Skip Wrightson. They had barreled across the nation, begging used cooking oil from burger joints, filtering it and using it to fuel their jaunt at 25-27 miles per gallon. I had wondered how they were getting free grease if it was such a valuable commodity.

Their trip is chronicled on their exciting Web site. Diary highlights include the July 13 dilemma in Utica, N.Y., between the watery grease from Lotta Burger and the thick grease from Burger King; Aug. 19's plaintive "The grease we picked up in Utah the other day is quite rancid and seems to be clogging the filter"; and their July 29 visit to an Oregon renewable energy fair in which the grease car was all but forcibly fitted with solar panels although "Justin isn't really a solar advocate."

I called Carven, who said the project started to design a system to power vehicles and generators in the third world, where vegetable oil is cheaper than petroleum. "In this country vegetable oil is so expensive, so I redesigned it to run on used cooking oil," Carven said. They'd start the grease car with diesel fuel to warm up the cooking oil, and then switch to burning the cooking oil.

Were they ever taken for grease thieves? Apparently not. For the most part people were delighted to give them a few pounds of used cooking oil. Their only problem was in Montana, where state law mandates that restaurants sell their used grease to recyclers. No one would give them so much as a gallon. They finally went to a recycler over the border in Idaho, who happily topped off the grease car and discussed the hopeful future of biodiesel fuels with them.

"They don't have a real great market for their stuff except hog feed," said Carven. Was it a smelly place? "Oh yeah, it was one of the more foul places I've ever been." (Note to producer: No Smell-O-Rama.)

Grease recycling policies varied in different parts of the country, Carven said. "In some parts of the country commodities brokers actually pay for the oil. In most of the country companies actually have to pay waste removal companies to come and take it away." The Idaho plant, for example, paid restaurants "less than $10 a month to secure the stock of oil."

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So now I knew all about grease, grease prices and fun projects to do with grease, but I needed to know more about grease theft.

I called the grease lawyer, Jaworski, an affable guy who's handled dozens of grease cases in addition to other criminal cases, divorce work and deceptive trade cases. (I used to live in east Texas, and formed the impression that the large and diverse state of Texas is particularly blessed in causes for legal action.) I want him in my corner if I'm arrested for grease theft.

I asked him about the 1990 case that got him started in grease law. According to Jaworski, "It was an obvious setup." A grease company, convinced that grease was disappearing from containers at restaurants with which it had contracts, staked out a Popeye's Fried Chicken lot.

Jaworski's clients, small-time grease collectors, had left a business card at the restaurant saying that they picked up grease. "Somebody called them and said go pick up the grease, the company hadn't picked it up. So they said OK, they came out, they knocked on the door and nobody answered." It was early in the morning, since grease pickups are usually made when the restaurants are closed. They took the grease. "They taped a receipt on the back of the door. We found out later that these two guys who worked for the rival company came and took the receipt," relates Jaworski. "And of course the manager of the store said, 'We never called you.'"

Jaworski obtained an acquittal for his clients and then sued for malicious prosecution, winning a judgment of $45,000.

Jaworski says it often happened that the manager of a store that had a contract with a grease company might sell grease on the side to another grease dealer. (This was especially likely to happen if the contracted grease company was late picking up the grease and things were starting to get overly oily or smelly out back.) "The manager of the store would pick up $15-$20 a week selling the grease," Jaworski says. "It was only 20 bucks but it amounted to lunch money. A fringe benefit." Then they'd often tell the contracted grease company that the grease had been stolen.

"In reality they didn't own the grease because they didn't pay for it till the end of the month," Jaworski argues, an argument that didn't always fly in court.

Jaworski says some of the grease companies hired off-duty or retired police officers to stake out grease-collecting sites, and paid them "$100 a pop for every person they busted. They would put guns to their heads. They were real vigilantes. So these little guys were pleading guilty. After two thefts, the third theft becomes a felony and the little guy would be pressured into testifying," Jaworski says.

"People in the grease business are kind of the equivalent of the people in New Jersey who are in the trash business," he says.

I asked a question that had been preying on my mind: Are there female grease thieves? "Yeah, there's one that I know of and she can lift 55-gallon barrels," Jaworski says. (My competition is strong! It will be no squalling catfight when we meet! Or wait -- maybe she will be my mentor. She will teach me the ropes of grease. Maestra!)

I wondered if the grease companies ever had a hard time getting the law interested in their woes. "Exactly," says Jaworski. "I had a lot of jurors, when we were doing the voir dire, say, 'Why are you wasting our time with these cases?'"

Soon Jaworski had handled over 100 grease cases, more than a dozen of which went to trial. In one local jurisdiction, Harris County, the district attorney didn't want to prosecute any more grease cases, Jaworski says. "A lot of them got dismissed. He was seeing a lot of the same cops in the same busts over and over again, so he basically wasn't accepting cases that were grease cases."

Jaworski handled the 1998 San Antonio case that had alerted me to the grease crime situation, and to my new destiny. In this case, Griffin Industries, one of the nation's largest grease companies, had hired a former Texas Ranger to catch grease thieves. It also hired "a former grease thief, David Mitchell" as an informant. The company loaded Mitchell's tanker with 11,350 pounds of grease from its Bastrop, Texas, plant and arranged for him to sell it to employees of another company, Imperial Grease Service.

The employees were covertly videotaped buying the grease, which Mitchell told them was stolen, and charged with felony theft.

Jaworski argued that these were low-level employees following instructions from their managers to buy the grease. "They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," he told the San Antonio Express-News.

He also charged that Griffin's real concern was not stopping theft, but putting competitors out of business.

Through civil discovery, Jaworski obtained a copy of what he characterizes as a Griffin Industries plan for driving the competition out of business, which he introduced into evidence in more than one grease case.

In the 1998 case that had attracted my interest, however, two of Jaworski's three clients were convicted and received sentences of probation and community service.

Grease law has simmered down since the mid-'90s, perhaps because the price of grease has fallen. Jaworski has no grease cases at present.

I tried to ask Geise, of Griffin Industries, about the San Antonio case, but he said he wasn't familiar with it. He had a few harsh words for grease thieves, however. "We call them in the industry 'grease bandits.' In many cases we'll have a lock on the container. They can take bolt cutters and they just empty the grease," he said, making the case that it's not just a matter of who picks up the grease first, but a case of stealing grease that belongs to Griffin. "We're going to protect our business interests."

"Wherever you get a business entity you'll get a smaller entity to defraud that entity," he said. "These would be guys who steal hubcaps; they're probably at your lower echelons of sophistication and other options."

Is there really that much money in grease nowadays? I asked. It depends. "A large franchisee like a McDonald's owner who has 10 to 12 restaurants, it could be more than $10,000 a year," he estimated.

Are there restaurants that aren't greasy enough to bother with? "Yes. If there wasn't several hundred pounds of product being produced a month it wouldn't be cost-effective," Geise said.

Everett Henley is another of Jaworski's clients who's had his problems with Griffin Industries. A former Houston police officer, he had a medium-size rendering business on the side, providing restaurants with containers and sending drivers out to service them on a regular basis. "My wife's family's been in it for probably three generations," Henley told me. "I had a complete rendering business. I bought it, rendered it and sold it to brokers overseas."

According to Henley, he was giving companies like Griffin too much competition. "When I took Church's away from them they went ballistic."

He was charged with two counts of grease theft and convicted on one of them. "I'll tell you the truth. I didn't steal a thing."

"They sued me under the RICO Act; they tried to get three grand jury indictments against me," Henley says. "The grand jury started laughing. They said, 'We'll see flying saucers outside our window before we'll see this with grease.'"

Henley had to leave the police force, and also left the grease business. "They got a $4.1 million judgment against me," he says. "I just got tired of paying attorneys' fees, tired of being tired. They succeeded," he says. "They basically forced me out."

Grease rivalry is not exclusive to Texas. A 1996 Wall Street Journal story by Thomas Petzinger Jr. datelined St. George, S.C., described the difficulties of Dausey By-Products, a fledgling grease company operated by father and son George and Tres Dausey.

Dausey By-Products was stepping on the toes of Carolina By-Products, a $100 million-a-year business. The two companies battled for the right to collect the grease in two locations of a new Carolina ribs chain, Sticky Fingers. Dausey originally had the deal, but CBP offered to pay a bonus of $500. This was for the privilege of picking up about $30 worth of grease a month at each location. Sticky Fingers turned it down in the name of supporting local business. CBP offered $1,500. Sticky Fingers said it would not be bought. CBP offered $5,000. Sticky Fingers took the deal.

Tres Dausey noticed a car following him as he made his rounds in the Dausey By-Products truck -- it turned out to be a CBP employee. CBP president David Evans told the Journal that the bonuses weren't so out of line, and that CBP was as free to tail the Dauseys as the Dauseys were to tail CBP drivers. "We will protect our route structure," he said.

But, the Journal reported, the Dauseys provided better service than CBP, paying more regularly and picking up grease before the containers got ugly. More customers turned down the bonuses than took them. The moral, the Journal reported, is: "Cash wins business, but service keeps it."

Since then, CBP has been bought out by Valley Proteins. Sticky Fingers is thriving. "They are doing quite well for themselves," Tres Dausey says. "They just opened up a new store and we have got that new store. We have kind of split the account."

These days neither competition nor grease theft is a problem for Dausey By-Products. "To tell you the truth I don't see why anyone would want to get in the business," Tres Dausey says. The family has perspective on the market. "My dad's been in the business I can't tell you how many years long." In the 1960s George Dausey started Savannah Tallow, and sold his first load of grease for 4 cents a pound. "Right now the market for our finished product is the lowest it's been in 30 to 35 years," Tres Dausey says.

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When is a grease thief not a grease thief? If a restaurant manager claims that grease was stolen, when he really sold it from the side door, that's not grease theft, that's grease fraud, isn't it?

Sometimes it's just wholesome free-market competition. "It's not theft. It's just a company trying to corner the grease market," Jaworski told me. (I like a lawyer whose clients are all innocent. Like Perry Mason.)

But Everett Henley reassured me that grease theft exists. "There are thieves out there," says Henley. "There is some that goes on, but not like they say it is."

I now know that if soy and palm oil production falters, a legion of grease thieves will spring into action. I shall watch the international vegetable oil markets with a keen eye, while penning my screenplay with the other.

The more I thought about it, the more potential the concept had. In the course of my research I had heard rumors of fierce grease competition leading to grease toughs tossing rival grease collectors into grease receptacles, closing the lid and threatening to shoot. Fabulous drama! I saw myself (played by Jackie Chan -- I'm told the resemblance is remarkable) catapulting out of a grease container to repulse an army of grease foes, intent on taking over my tiny grease business, staffed by a motley group of last chancers and inner-city teens.

I am ready for my closeup.

By Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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