For roughly five years, a band of 21 conspirators stole thousands of gallons of used cooking oil, hauling off an estimated $3.9 million worth of valuable “yellow grease” from restaurants scattered over three states, according to a federal indictment unsealed in Raleigh Thursday.
The thefts stretched across North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, and involved pumping the oil out of restaurant storage tanks and transporting it inside box trucks, the indictment said. Starting in 2014, the conspirators hit dozens of eateries: McLean’s Ole Time Cafe in Zebulon; Mayflower Seafood in Rocky Mount; JJ’s Fish & Chicken in Henderson.
Once in 2017, they robbed oil from 14 restaurants in Durham, Cary and Apex in a day. Conspirators stored the stolen oil inside a Durham warehouse, where it was then transported to other states in a tanker-trailer capable of holding 50,000 pounds.
“Used cooking oil has become a sought-after commodity by biodiesel companies, and restaurants use the sale of this oil as another source of revenue,” said John Eisert, acting special agent in charge of homeland security investigations in Charlotte, in a news release. “This team of co-conspirators had an elaborate scheme to steal thousands of gallons of cooking oil for their own profit.”
The oil rendering industry estimates between $45 million and $75 million in losses to oil theft each year, U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon Jr. said in the release.
A 100-pound load of “yellow grease” is worth $25, or 25 cents a pound, according to the most current U.S. Department of Agriculture report. A gallon of used oil weighs about 7.5 pounds, the indictment said.
“Used cooking oil, historically viewed as a waste product, has become a valuable recycled commodity over the past decade,” the indictment said. “The majority of the recycled cooking oil sold is used for biofuel, fluctuating with market demand. It can also be used as a nutritional additive to animal feed and pet food.”
In April, police charged a Virginia man with stealing hundreds of gallons from a Burger King, according to the Associated Press. In 2014, three Illinois men faced charges of stealing more than 10,000 gallons of oil, the AP reported, having been arrested in a barn where they stored it.
The indictment names the following people indicted on charges of conspiracy and money laundering: Salvador Escalante, 43, of Mexico, aka “Billy Escalante, Ruth Nava-Abarca, 29, of Mexico; Florentino Valencia-Tepoz, 47, of Mexico; Gregorio Vazquez-Catillo, 43, of Mexico, aka “Jaime Castillo;” Juan De La Cruz-Gonzalez, 32, of Mexico; Samuel Cruz, 42, of Durham; Miguel Gutierrez, 24, of Henderson; Jaime Labra-Tova, 23, of Henderson; Oscar Ugalde-Escalante, 31, of Mexico; Hasan Ozvatan, 40, of Turkey; Emilio Gomez-Gonzalez, 36, of Mexico; Juan Maldonado-Hernandez, 28, of Mexico; George Luis Morales, 21, of New York, Toribio Escalante-Campos, 59, of Mexico; Eric Evo, 24, of Richmond, Va.; Ryan Mercado-Rodriguez, 24, of Henderson; Juan Lopez-Posada, 40, of El Salvador; Rene Espinoza-Torres, 45, of Mexico; Kelvin Fe Arellano-Valencia, 19, of Raleigh; Demetrio Valencia-Flores, 42, of Mexico; and Alvaro Mendez-Flores, 38, of Mexico.
One of them, Gomez-Gonzalez, was also indicted for failing to register with immigration officials. Five more were indicted on charges of alien harboring: Nava-Abarca, Valencia-Tepoz, Escalante-Campos, Ibarra-Escalante and Vazquez-Castillo. Four face charges of immigration-related entrepreneurship fraud: Ibarra-Escalante, Valencia-Tepoz, Nava-Abarca and Vazquez-Castillo.
Higdon said six of the defendants are still at-large: Nava-Abarca, De La Cruz-Gonzalez, Espinoza-Torres, Maldonado-Hernandez and Ozvatan. Anyone with information on their whereabouts is urged to call the Homeland Security Investigations Tip-Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or 1-866- 347-2423.
The conspiracy and money laundering charges in the indictment carry a prison term of up to 25 years, the indictment said. A conviction for alien harboring would carry another five years.