Authorities say the three men charged with stealing air conditioning units from a Ringgold, Ga., motel that had its roof blown off in the April tornado represent only one of many area looting cases.
“We’ve run people off left and right,” said Ringgold Police Chief Dan Bilbrey.
Since the killer tornado ripped through the Alabama Highway business district near Interstate 75, looters have been caught stealing from damaged motels and taking pieces of scrap metal left scattered around some of the fast-food restaurants, Bilbrey said.
The police department has opened at least half a dozen burglary or theft-by-taking cases since the tornado, Bilbrey said.
The latest arrests were Andrew Thomason, 19, of Tunnel Hill, Ga.; Trevor Dennison, 19, of Ringgold; and Michael Muse, 49, also of Tunnel Hill, who were charged with burglary after police stopped them hauling air conditioning units in the back of a truck Sunday night, an incident report states. The units came from the top level of the damaged and empty Quality Inn, police said.
Officers have caught people trying to take piles of metal left along the road without realizing the scraps still belong to the businesses, Bilbrey said. Those people were not charged. But others were when it was obvious they were stealing, he said.
When pulled over Sunday night, Thomason first told an officer he couldn’t remember the name of the person who gave him permission to take the air conditioning units, an incident report states. But after further questioning he admitted he was “just trying to make some money,” according to the report.
After Quality Inn owner Naren Patel heard of the arrest, he searched the hotel with an officer and found that at least 18 units were missing. But police reported they found only nine units in Thomason’s truck.
Since the tornado, Patel said, he is having a difficult time keeping looters from four of his hotels that now are total losses.
“We’re trying to watch [the hotels] ourselves,” Patel said. “It’s very difficult to do.”
But the burglaries don’t stop with the businesses.
At least two homeowners on Cherokee Valley Road — where the worst of the tornado’s winds blew houses to pieces and killed seven people — have reported stolen vehicles, authorities said.
A woman reported that her golf cart was stolen several weeks ago, and another man reported that his four-wheeler and some tools were taken from a locked shed, Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Scott Jordan said.
Officers were stationed along both entrances to Cherokee Valley Road for several weeks after the tornado, but now the patrol officer assigned to that area monitors the street, Jordan said.
Bilbrey said he also has stationed an officer to patrol Alabama Highway at all times, and he tries to assign two officers when he can.
“We’re doing our best keeping people out that don’t have any business being there,” Jordan said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...