Theft of nickel from city warehouse has international implications

It was a deceptively simple heist.

People cut through a chain-link fence surrounding a nondescript warehouse, backed trucks onto a lot and drove off with chassis loaded with shipping containers filled with nickel briquettes and a metal called ferrochrome.

But cashing in on one of the biggest thefts in recent Baltimore memory proved to be much more difficult.

Total weight of the stolen metal: 321,872 pounds.

Total value: $2.6 million.

City police began their investigation shortly after the Labor Day break-in and quickly identified a suspect. Now the incident is a federal case, with tentacles reaching from a scrap metal dealer in West Baltimore to companies in Pittsburgh, New York, Switzerland and Australia.

Prosecutors on Monday filed criminal charges in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against the owner of Industrial Metals, which has lots on Warwick Avenue and Baker Street, accusing him of possessing stolen goods used in interstate commerce.

Authorities said they arrested Alan A. Verschleisser, 65, before he boarded a Delta Airlines flight leaving JFK Airport in New York bound for Israel. Verschleisser could not be reached for comment, and no attorney was listed in court documents as representing him. Two others arrested by city police in September face local charges in connection with the theft.

Collecting and stealing scrap metal and selling it to recycling yards is a time-honored way of forging a living on Baltimore streets. Thieves strip houses of everything from copper gutters to washing machines, and have stolen the doors to the downtown courthouse, light poles, and even bleacher seats from a baseball park in Anne Arundel County.

But off-loading more than 300,000 pounds of metal is not as easy as pushing a shopping cart full of scrap metal to the front doors of a recycling plant.

"It's a pretty difficult product to move," said Rusty Davis, the vice president of operations for S.H. Bell, the Pittsburgh-based metal and mineral import company that owns the East Biddle Street warehouse that was holding the metals for the owners when they were taken.

"It was a monumental theft," said Davis, who added that the company has recovered all 14 large bags of nickel. He said the other metal, ferrochrome, was found in its shipping containers abandoned and untouched on a city street.

Tying to find a buyer for nickel briquettes and ferrochrome — both used in the production of steel to prevent corrosion — proved to be the suspect's undoing, according to the criminal complaint filed in court by an agent assigned to the commercial fraud unit of the U.S. Secret Service.

Court documents say that Verschleisser tried to sell some of the metal to a raw material supply company in Switzerland, but that company balked and forwarded an e-mail to the owner of the nickel, BHP Billiton Marketing, a mining company in Australia.

The e-mail, written by Verschleisser's administrative assistant, bounced from the companies to Baltimore police and to the feds, who copied it in their criminal complaint: "I am please that I had the opportunity to talk to you this morning regarding the nickel supply I have available. As we discussed, at this time I have 20 tons of nickel material in pillows."

That tip helped Baltimore police detectives Adam Yates and Wayne J. Sponksy unravel a case filled with international intrigue and undercover surveillance that came to a conclusion with the most routine of all police operations — a vehicle stop on North Monroe Street.

The salvage yard in West Baltimore appeared shuttered on Tuesday, with entrances on Baker Street and around the corner on Warwick Avenue blocked by mounds of debris, the rusted frames of overturned trucks and cars and fencing. There is no name listed on any building.

A telephone number for Industrial Metals went unanswered and the woman who wrote the e-mail — Carol Rose — said she is no longer associated with the company. Rose said she cooperated with authorities but said she knows nothing about what went on at the scrap yard. She said she had been ordered to send the e-mail. "I cannot help you with anything," she said.

Detectives were first called to the warehouse at the end of East Biddle Street, near the Baltimore County line, on Sept. 7 when the terminal manager, Joe Pollutra, arrived for work after the Labor Day weekend and noticed the missing pallets. He told police, according to a report, that the containers had been secured on Sept. 3 at 9:30 p.m.

Pollutra told police that he "observed tire tracks leading up to and away from the broken fence," according to the federal court papers. In a brief interview, Davis said the metals were on the lot and had not yet been moved inside the warehouse, making the theft as simple as hooking up the truck to the chassis and driving off the lot.

The e-mail a few days later led city police and private investigators hired by the company to Verschleisser. A Baltimore police spokesman said a detective spoke to the suspect and was told he "was in the process of closing his company and refused to speak anymore."

Federal court documents say that Verschleisser told a city detective: "Why are you calling me about it? I don't know what you are talking about. I have nothing else to say."

Meanwhile, authorities said private detectives with the Castle Security Group were watching the scrap metal yard in the 2500 block of Baker St. On Sept. 14, according to the federal complaint, the detectives saw a semi truck parked on a rear yard "carrying white sacks similar to those which the stolen nickel was pack in."

The detectives flagged down a city police car when the truck left the lot, and the driver and passenger were arrested. "The writing on the bags loaded on the flatbed had been covered with black paint," the criminal complaint says.

Police then obtained a search warrant for the scrap metal lots and said they seized 22 white bags containing 96,800 pounds of nickel and a cardboard box containing another 8,800 pounds of the metal. Police said they also found black paint, a paint brush and a roller.

Thousands of pounds of nickel remain missing.

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