Business owners offer reward in rash of lawn mower thefts

Merritt Patterson isn't yet ready to buy a new lawn mower.

The owner of XRDi, a Beaufort business that makes small, low-emission engines, Patterson has banded with another Beaufort business to try to nab those responsible for a string of lawn mower thefts in northern Beaufort County this summer.

"I don't think I'll be buying a new one until things get more secure -- until people are behind bars," Patterson said.

Patterson's 48-inch commercial-grade riding mower was stolen July 23, when he says a trio of thieves used bolt cutters to cut two locks on a chain-link enclosure behind his business in the Beaufort Industrial Village on Burton Hill Road. Patterson said the thieves loaded the $6,500, year-old mower onto a trailer and drove off.

The theft at XRDi wasn't an isolated incident, said Todd Smith of Anderson Funeral Home.

Smith said he believes the same group stole two mowers, a pressure washer, some tools and a utility trailer from Anderson Funeral Home on June 13.

Though all of the stolen items have been replaced, Smith said the funeral home has to go to greater lengths to keep their mowers and other lawn equipment from being stolen again.

"We've bought some extra locks and chained everything down," he said. "We can't even use that shed anymore. We've moved all of the mowers into the funeral home where we have motion detectors, so if they try to go in there to steal them, they'll set off the alarms and the (Beaufort County) Sheriff's Office will show up."

Twice -- once in May and again in July -- Kelly Hodgson had the commercial-grade riding mower and utility trailer she uses to run her lawn-care business on Fripp Island stolen from the front yard of her home on Marsh Dunes Road.

"We live on a gated island," Hodgson said. "I definitely felt very violated. This is my livelihood, I'm just trying to earn an honest living and these people clearly are not."

Mowers also were stolen last month from Copeland Funeral Home, said Cpl. Robin McIntosh, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.

"Investigators do suspect that the Anderson Funeral Home, Copeland Funeral Home and Fripp Island lawn equipment thefts may be related, but at this time there is no evidence to support any arrests," McIntosh said. "The investigators' suspicions of the relation of the incidents and the disposal of the stolen property is based on information received during the investigation, and a surveillance video from one of the incident locations."

Investigators believe that the stolen equipment in each of these cases was likely sold in Georgia, McIntosh said.

Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy said investigators have yet to identify a suspect in the break-in at XRDi and said there is nothing concrete to tie that theft to others in the county.

While city and county investigators try to crack the case, Patterson and Smith have set up a $500 reward fund for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the thefts.