Thieves Pilfer Stacks of Weeklies — For Recycling Cash

By: Mark Fitzgerald

(From our February print issue.) An empty newsrack signifies success for a free newspaper — unless thieves are cleaning it out minutes after it’s been filled.

In the past, the occasional incidents of mass theft of newspapers reported around the country usually had to do with that issue’s news. A fraternity might be upset by a college paper’s reporting of its misdeeds, or friends of a politician might try to sweep all the copies of an alt-weekly off the street before people could read of a breaking scandal.

But in a development that should strike fear among free-paper publishers everywhere, profit-seeking thieves in the San Francisco Bay Area — lured by rising recycled paper prices — are stealing papers by the boxload, carting off literally thousands of copies and dumping them for cash at no-questions-asked recycling centers.

“Newsprint is up in price,” explains a frequent victim of the thieves, San Francisco Bay Guardian co-owner Bruce Brugmann.

Hal Brody had no idea how bad the problem was until he bought the East Bay Express alt-weekly from Village Voice Media in May. “In one heavily trafficked area, where we lay out literally thousands of papers at dawn, we’d get calls from readers at noon that there were all gone,” he says.

It got bad enough Brody hired a private detective, who watched as a truck with no plates methodically followed Express delivery vehicles. At every stop, the truck driver would wait until the deliverers were out of sight, then pull up, and empty the contents of the racks into the truck bed. The detective, an ex-cop, followed him to a recycling center — and then had to convince a skeptical police dispatcher that a crime was being committed.

When the police did arrive, en masse, they found the truck loaded with 1,500 brand-new newspapers, more than half of them copies of the Express and the Bay Guardian. But there was also virtually every free paper offered on the streets of the Bay Area, from the Spanish-language El Mensajero to another Berkeley alt-paper, the Daily Planet, to the Classified Flea Market shopper. “The day we picked him up,” Brody says, “he had 18 different publications in the back of the truck.”

So what happened to this master thief? “They catch him, and all they do is write him a ticket,” Brody says.

That’s been another frustration of the Bay Area free paper publishers. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year signed into law a bill prohibiting the taking of more than 25 copies of a free paper. But it was generally aimed at those frat-boy and politician incidents, and defines the crime as petty theft with fines of no more than $250 for a first offense.

Prosecutors are inclined to value the papers taken at what they’ll fetch at recycling centers, generally 6 cents a pound.

Brody has organized dozens of area free publishers into a group that is fighting back in two ways: finding an aggressive district attorney who recognizes the real value of a stolen current paper, and going after the recyclers who ask no questions when hundreds of unread papers are dropped off.

After some initial skepticism, police are also taking the crime more seriously. “They’ve assigned a couple of detectives to it and promised a sting on two recyclers by the end of January, which should be very easy to do,” Brody said near the beginning of that month. The publishers also plan to, in effect, adopt one recycler each, who will agree to accept multiple copies only from the paper itself.

The thefts are making unlikely allies of Bay Area alternative publishers, whose intense competition over the years has seemed as much personal as a matter of business. To keep the private detective on the job and pay to pursue civil penalties against thieves and recyclers, Brody was hoping in January to set up a formal organization with dues.

But though the alternative press may be working with The Man to stop the rip-offs, Brody’s suggested name for the organization reflects the continued irreverence of the alternative press: “I thought we’d call it something like Coalition for Regionally Associated Publishers. Or CRAP, for short.”

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