Theft of nickel is a case of international intrigue

This is part of the S.H. Bell Company complex of buildings in the 3500 block of E. Biddle St. The Pittsburgh-based metal and mineral import company owns the warehouse that was holding the metals for the owners when they were taken.

Three people connected to the theft of more than 321,000 pounds of stolen metal have pleaded guilty in a scheme with tentacles reaching from a scrap metal dealer in West Baltimore to companies in Pittsburgh, New York, Switzerland, India and Australia.

It began with a truck chassis loaded with shipping containers filled with nickel briquettes and a metal called ferrochrome, stolen last year from a nondescript warehouse by people who cut through a fence and used forklifts and front-end loaders to take the heavy containers.

But this was not ordinary metal heist, such as ripping copper downspouts off houses in upscale city neighborhoods. The value of the products stolen in this caper topped $2.6 million. Read a statement on the case from the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office and check out the front-page story on the theft from Nov. 30, 2010.

And it happened much in the same way the theft of a phone from an unlocked car is done — the container was left on an outside, unguarded lot over a holiday weekend. It turns out that one of the largest heists in Baltimore Police Department history filled, with international intrigue, was also a crime of opportunity.

At one point, prosecutors said the suspects didn't have a heavy enough machine to lift the containers of nickel, and had to go to a construction site to get a Caterpillar 980 front-end loader "to lift the trailer out of the asphalt." Court documents say they painted over the bags of nickel to obscure the owner's name.

The Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office said two men — Thomas Jefferson, 50, and James Robinson, 41 — pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Tuesday to conspiring to possess stolen goods from a foreign shipment. The metal had been imported through the Port of Baltimore.

Last month, the alleged ringleader, Alan A. Verschleisser, 66, pleaded guilty to the same charges. He has owned for more than 30 years a company called Industrial Metals, a salvage yard at Baker and Warwick streets in West Baltimore.

When the story of the heist broke in December 2010, it seemed a large but fairly unremarkable case. The big question was how the suspects planned to unload their haul. Finding a buyer for 300,000 pounds of nickel briquettes is not as easy as taking in a copper gutter to a scrap yard.

"It's a pretty difficult product to move," said Rusty Davis, the vice president of S.H. Bell, a Pittsburgh-based metal and mineral import company that owns the East Biddle Street warehouse from where the theft occurred. S.H. Bell was holding the metals for the owners. "It was a monumental theft," Davis said at the time.

Court documents filed last year showed that Verschleisser tried to sell some of the metal to a raw material supply company in Switzerland, but that company turned them down. He then tried to sell to a company in Australia, but that time federal authorities were intercepting emails, according to the criminal complaint. Police recovered about 96,000 pounds of nickel in 22 white bags, but thousands of pounds remain missing.

The plea agreement signed by Verschleisser and the other suspects offers new details on the theft, which includes aluminum T-bars from London. Federal prosecutors in Baltimore said that Jefferson first stole aluminum T-bars from S.H. Bell and that Verschleisser sold 268,000 pounds of the metal for about $205,000. He deposited the money into a bank account. It does not say to whom he sold the product.

To avoid scrutiny by the IRS, prosecutors said he withdrew the money over time, in 31 increments totaling just under $10,000, the threshold for reporting the transactions. The court documents say he paid Jefferson $500 for each metal bar, and he got a total $70,000.

In July 2010, prosecutors said that an the international cargo ship BHP Billiton Marketing, flagged in Germany, came to the Port of Baltimore loaded with 264 metric tons of nickel briquettes, shipped from a company in Australia. They were en route to Pittsburgh.

The briquettes were cleared at customs and sent to S.H. Bell for storage. "Because of the holiday weekend, the containers were left on S.H. Bell's outside lot to be unloaded after the holiday weekend," Baltimore prosecutors said.

Court documents say the men used forklifts to offload containers of nickel, and later, of ferrochrome, which had been shipped from India and Turkey and was valued at $103,000.

But prosecutors said the suspects had trouble selling the product, and got caught when a prospective buyer noticed a bulletin about the thefts and contacted Baltimore police Det. Wayne Sponskey. Authorities said they found sacks of nickel in one of Verschleisser scrap yards and more on a truck that was pulled over in a traffic stop.

Verschleisser and Robinson each face up to five years in federal prison when they are sentenced in April. Jefferson faces up to 15 years in prison.