FCSO Makes Dent in ‘U-Haul Cabal’

Michael Boooker

Tyrone David Holloway

WINNSBORO – It may not have been a Hollywood-style high-speed chase along the lines of Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” or Gene Hackman in “The French Connection,” but high-speed pursuits involving a U-Haul rarely are. Especially a U-Haul towing a tractor on the back of a flatbed trailer.

Style points aside, investigators from the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office now have two men in custody whom they have linked to a larger organization, one that has pilfered Fairfield and surrounding counties of thousands of dollars in farm equipment and other machinery in a detailed and seemingly impervious operation.

The break came on April 12 when a deputy working special duty at the Waffle House off I-77 exit 34 in Ridgeway spotted a U-Haul towing a tractor traveling down Highway 34 at approximately 2:43 a.m. Deputies had been put on special alert for suspicious U-Hauls after preliminary investigations into the theft of equipment from J. Wilbur Collins & Co. on Kincaid Bridge Road in March determined that thieves were using U-Hauls to cart away heavy gear. County units in the Ridgeway area were notified and attempted to pull the U-Haul over after the driver of the truck crossed the center line. When the pursuing deputy hit his blue lights, the U-Haul hit the gas and raced down 34, heading toward Winnsboro.

At the intersection of Highway 321 Bypass, the U-Haul made a sharp left, heading south. The driver then swooped into the median, cutting across the grass and into the north-bound lane – still heading south as fast as the U-Haul could manage. Backup units raced ahead of the U-Haul, clearing traffic as the chase advanced south, while pursuing units followed in the south-bound lane. An oncoming mini-van only barely avoided a head-on collision.

Highway 321 became two lanes again, and the U-Haul hung a rickety left onto Roddy Road, following it to where it dead-ends before plowing through the front yard of a home, diving into a creek and crashing against a tree. The doors flew open and the driver and a passenger fled on foot into the darkness. The passenger leapt into the creek, but was apprehended a few yards away. The driver made a better show of it, and bloodhounds were called to the scene to sniff out his trail. Half an hour later, the driver was found cowering underneath the front porch of a nearby home.

The passenger was identified as Tyrone David Holloway, 44, of 421 Dewpoint Road, Columbia. The driver was identified as Michael Booker, 47, of 1460 Oak Crest Drive, Columbia. The U-Haul was reported stolen from Two Notch Road, Columbia, while the tractor and the trailer were reported stolen from the Rosewood Drive area of Columbia. Holloway was charged with possession of stolen property, while Booker was charged with several counts of grand larceny. All told, the goods recovered that morning were worth approximately $36,000, yet they represent only a fraction of what the organization has netted in recent months. Moreover, investigators believe the thefts date back years and are the work of a larger ring with tentacles stretching across the entire state.

Although the identity of the person sitting at the top of the pyramid is, to date, unknown, Chief Deputy Keith Lewis said the organization operates out of another county. The organization is broken up into smaller groups of specialists, none of whom is aware of the other’s identity. It begins with an advanced team of scouts, who spend day after day driving around the state, casing properties and making notes of low-hanging fruit – lawn equipment left outdoors, trailers parked outside homes or businesses, tractors or other machinery left in the open or in easily breached lots. The scout team reports back and a second team is dispatched to make the theft. Individual teams specialize in specific types of equipment, Lewis said – lawn mowers, dump trucks, tractors, trailers. After the items are stolen, thieves then take the goods to a predetermined drop point – typically the parking lot of a business or church, or at a truck stop. A third unit is there waiting for them to give the thieves a lift back to their individual assembly points and the stolen goods are left to await pickup by a fourth team.

On March 11, a team hit J. Wilbur Collins & Co. They made off with a lawn mower, a pressure washer and a trailer. The take was so good, they decided to come back for a second helping a week later. But by then, the company had upgraded their surveillance cameras, and while investigators were not able to identify any suspects during the second, abortive, attempt on J. Wilbur Collins, they were able to see that suspects were employing a U-Haul in their efforts. That image stuck, and when deputies spotted a U-Haul parked and left unattended in the Wal-Mart parking lot on the 321 Bypass on March 18, they decided to have a look.

Inside the U-Haul, investigators saw that the ignition switch had been broken, and a check on the vehicle determined that it had indeed been stolen out of Richland County just days earlier. It was enough for the Sheriff’s Office to send out an intelligence report to its deputies to be on the lookout for U-Hauls passing through the county, which led to the April 12 chase and arrest.

Since the arrest of Holloway and Booker, the Sheriff’s Office said investigators have cleared up three cases in Fairfield County, including the theft of a trailer from the Jenkinsville Water Company on April 4, the theft of a Ford F-450 along with other equipment from a construction site in Jenkinsville on April 1 and the J. Wilbur Collins case. One case in Newberry County, one in the city of Newberry, two cases in Lexington County and four cases in Richland County have also been cleared since the arrests. More cases are pending, the Sheriff’s Office said, although cracking the ring completely may prove a more difficult challenge. The structure of the organization, designed to limit contact between the levels of operation, virtually ensures only the smallest fish may ever swim into law enforcement’s net.

In the meantime, Lewis advises citizens to keep their gear locked up tight.

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