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More than $1 million in equipment recovery nets officer award

By Connie Lannan

January 30, 2024

Detective Sgt. Greg Hinchliffe

In the process of recovering more than $1 million worth of stolen construction equipment, Detective Sgt. Greg Hinchliffe with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in Naples, Fla., identified a theft ring comprised of between 15 and 43 suspects who have been implicated in 45 felony cases that occurred in 17 different Florida jurisdictions. So far, nine arrests have been made, with more coming.

This incredible achievement has garnered Hinchliffe the ARA Insurance/National Equipment Register (NER) Daniel Pearson Law Enforcement Award, which he will receive during the Law Enforcement Training on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at The ARA Show™ in New Orleans. In addition to the award, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office will receive $2,000 for its continued theft-prevention and equipment recovery efforts.

This prestigious award, which recognizes the outstanding efforts of law enforcement personnel, recently was renamed in honor of Pearson, who died earlier this year. Pearson had been a member of the Haltom City, Texas, Police Department and a member of its SWAT Team. He was the first recipient of this award.

For Hinchliffe, a general crimes detective, his path to solving a swath of equipment thefts in Florida with an estimated value of more than $2 million initially took place with the recovery of various pieces of equipment in his county.

“The district/county I work in is primarily residential with large acreage lots. There is a lot of construction equipment stored here and development. Because of the geographic area I am in, I came in contact with a lot of that equipment and a lot of that was stolen. One of the initial suspects I had gotten calls about involved equipment that was tracked back to his property. After I had two contacts with him, I became suspicious of more activity. I started to look at his associates and began tracking his vehicles. With my investigative means, I was able to establish a network and a group that was doing it,” he says.

One of the most significant revelations in the case was that “several of the suspects live in Collier County and a lot of the stolen equipment was coming here. I was recovering equipment here when I would get GPS tracks to the area. I realized there was a Collier connection. Of the 45 thefts, 11 were stolen in Collier. The rest were stolen from other counties,” Hinchliffe says.

The thieves’ modus operandi appeared to be more of opportunity. “Generally, the theft ring would locate equipment parked near or visible from the roadways, looking for remote areas and going in at night. They had purchased keys online for each of the different types of equipment, would cut the fences and drive the equipment off the property,” Hinchliffe says.

While the thefts focused on a variety of construction equipment, trailers and utility vehicles, the predominant targets were skid steers and mini excavators.

During the year-and-a-half investigation, Hinchliffe located several of the hiding spots the thieves were using to store the equipment.

“I was able to recover some of the equipment because of GPS that wasn’t found on the stolen equipment. I also found equipment in certain areas because they were utilizing the same hiding spots. A lot of the areas were undeveloped and I was able to see the fresh tracks moving into the wood line. They would push the equipment into the wooded area and sometimes there was fresh damage to the foliage,” he says, adding that the group’s goal was to “sanitize the equipment for resale.”

Hinchliffe is grateful for the help he received along the way — tips from a Kubota dealer in Fort Myers, Fla., whose customers had their equipment stolen, assistance from detectives in Charlotte County, Fla., who had a number of thefts in their county and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Now with the help of investigative techniques, Hinchliffe and his fellow officers have been able to establish the group’s organizational structure and probable cause for additional arrests. So this is still an active case.

While honored and appreciative of receiving this award, Hinchliffe stresses the importance of the work and what these thefts mean to the victims. “The effect of these thefts is that the victims can’t do their jobs because they don’t have the equipment or are out a significant sum of money. That is where the weight of this pushed me to dig in. This equipment is our victims’ livelihoods,” he says.

Throughout this and a previous case, which also involved a theft ring, Hinchliffe has “learned a lot about developing a network for organized crime. A lot of these equipment thefts are not one-off thefts. I am now working on another equipment case with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement,” he says.

Officer offers tips for securing equipment on job sites

Detective Sgt. Greg Hinchliffe with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in Naples, Fla., who will be honored with the ARA Insurance/National Equipment Register (NER) Daniel Pearson Law Enforcement Award at The ARA Show™ in New Orleans, has seen how theft rings target equipment at job sites. With that insight, he offers the following theft-prevention tips for equipment rental operators.

Use GPS with intermittent transmission. “Some suspects are using frequency identifiers. We have had better luck tracking equipment that had GPS that pinged every so often instead of continuously,” he says.

Put GPS on trailers. “The thieves are looking for GPS on the equipment and sometimes forget about possible GPS on the trailer,” Hinchliffe says.

Block in the machines. “Parking a pickup truck or another large object in front of the machines provides a physical obstacle that helps prevent the thieves going in and driving the equipment off the job site. They can get the keys to any machine online. I have arrested folks where they have a fat key ring of every make and model of equipment. They are more prone to move from the site if they can’t easily start the machine and drive it off,” he says.

Use equipment with digital ignition pins. “Digital ignitions can help prevent thieves from successfully stealing the equipment as they can’t start them like they can with the keys,” Hinchliffe says.

Don’t ignore GPS when it does ping. “Sometimes the rental store operator would get a ping, but they didn’t pay attention to it right away. For instance, if it would ping on Friday night, the operator wouldn’t call law enforcement until Monday. By then the machine is gone,” he says.