Mark W. Stephens Featured on KHOU-TV Defenders

Crooks cruise construction sites for easy score
09:08 AM CDT on Friday, April 30, 2004

By Anna Werner / 11 News 

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They might be cruising through your subdivision tonight, thieves who come out after the sun goes down hoping you won't see them. They're bold, they're brazen and they've been getting away with virtual raids through Houston subdivisions. That is -- until now.

They've been caught on tape taking whatever they can get away with.

Thieves sneak in, usually at night, and take not just appliances, but lumber, or windows, they even take doors right off their hinges.
Just ask the G****** family. Their dream home was far from the city and from crime, or so they thought. But when they first moved in. "I walked in to about right here," said Steve G******. "And I realized the dishwasher was missing."

And the stove, the oven and the microwave all had disappeared.

It hit them hard. "It did," said Grychka. "I mean I was just in disbelief. This does not just happen."

But ask any Houston builder what are these people stealing? "Anything from, you name it, that's got a value they'll take it," said Mike Best with Newmark Homes.

In fact, millions of dollars in materials are disappearing from subdivisions under construction all over Houston. Thieves sneak in, usually at night, and take not just appliances, but lumber, or windows, they even take doors right off their hinges. And why? Because it can mean big money where even a pile of lumber can be worth thousands of dollars.

But right on their tail is private investigator Mark Stephens. Night after night he's out looking for these home construction crooks. "Y'know, a crook is a crook," he said. "And if I can catch em, I'll catch em."

Catching them on tape one night in December. "They've backed their van up to a pile of lumber," said Stephens.

And they're stuffing it into their van, lumber that belongs to the homebuilder. "And they cut the bands and they're just loading it," he said.

Soon after they make their escape.

But that isn't all, the next night Stephens catches the men in a van already on the run with stolen materials as they make a wrong turn.
You can hear on the home video he taped, "They're bailing out, they're bailing out."
The thieves run right into the woods, but this time they have to leave the loot behind. What is it? Lumber.

And then there's the just plain bizarre as on a rainy February night, when Stephens sees something. "To be honest I didn't know what it was at first," he said.

That something, hanging out of the back of an SUV believe it or not was a tree. "It was a 30-gallon oak tree," said Stephens. "It was a tree he dug the tree out of the ground."

Sure enough, when two officers stop the car to take a look, there's the tree complete with bricks and materials for easy planting. The man told police he had permission to take it.

But did he have permission? "No," said Stephens.

"The unfortunate thing of it all, the dollars that add up, unfortunately it has to get passed on to the consumer," said Best. "And that's where everybody gets hit."

And now, the thieves are hitting harder.

February 20, just past 1:00 in the morning, at a subdivision near Sam Houston Racetrack is a familiar scene, a home under construction. But the two men want much more than plywood. They survey the scene, disappear for a few minutes and come back, with what? An air conditioner. But they're not stopping at one, they go back for a second, then they load them into the van and they're gone.

It seems awfully bold. "It is, it's very bold," said Stephens. "These guys, they don't care. They'll steal anything."

So what about those guys caught on tape?

The 11 News Defenders tracked down one man. Police said he was one of the guys making off with the air conditioners.

But he said he didn't take anything.

And a woman told the Defenders, "He doesn't have nothing to say ok, we live here."

Is he in the air conditioning business? The woman answered, "He works there."

Where does he work? Who does he work for? Is there some misunderstanding, can she clear it up?

Investigators say that man has been charged with theft. Several other people have been charged as a result of Stephens' work on other cases.

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