At the Texas Self Storage Association regional luncheon in Austin last week, a burly man with a gun in his waistline held court in front of dozens of self-storage industry personnel. The man of the hour was former FBI Special Agent and current Austin Police Detective Thomas Hugonnett, a specialist in organized crime and narcotics trafficking in the Austin area.
As Austin is a transportation hub for Mexican drug cartels, and self-storage has historically been used for criminal activity, Hugonnett and his partner were excited to meet with industry professionals. In addition to encouraging self-storage managers to develop close relationships with local law enforcement, Hugonnett showed us ways to identify illegal activity.
TOP TEN WARNING SIGNS OF STORAGE FACILITY CRIME
1. An older woman rents at your facility, but a young man regularly visits the unit. Oftentimes, a criminal will have their mother or father rent a storage unit on their behalf. Hugonnett’s partner said to be wary “if an elderly person rents a storage unit and they come in a couple times every few months, but a younger person comes in more often, and late at night. A lot of times when we deal with these narcotics guys, the storage unit is in someone else’s name. And usually it’s the parents.” Hugonnett concurred with his partner, adding that storage lockers are sometimes rented by wives and girlfriends. This is an especially common practice amongst Mexican drug cartel members.
2. Safes in storage. Detective Hugonnett explained that safes are a huge red flag. He rhetorically asked, “Why does someone put a large safe in their storage unit? There’s only one reason, as far as we’ve seen – guns, money, and dope. If I had a safe, would I keep it off at a site where I’m very rarely going to be?”
3. Out-of-state IDs. If a potential tenant has an out-of-state driver’s license, conversationally ask him or her if they still live out of state, and if so, why they’re renting a storage unit at your facility. In this scenario, asking for a second form of identification is a particularly good practice. Additionally, you should always be on the lookout for fake IDs. Hugonnett recommended looking for holograms to prove the legitimacy of a license. Also, “take the ID and squeeze it. That’s always a good indicator. Take your own license in one hand, feel how rigid it is. Take the tenant’s ID in the other hand, and see if you notice a difference in texture.”
4. Tenant pays in cash, in advance. If you have a tenant who only pays in cash or pays six months of rent in advance, this could be a potential red flag.
5. Tenant only pays when you’re closed. If you have an overnight payment drop box at your facility, and you find that certain tenants only pay when you are closed, you should take a closer look at them.
6. A higher-than-average utility bill. For those of you who offer climate-controlled units, peruse the utility bills. If one locker seems to be siphoning off more electricity than the others, this could be an indicator that there is a self-storage marijuana grow house inside.
7. A/C units or hydroponic lights. Marijuana gardens require a great deal of equipment, including heat lamps and ventilation. If you see a tenant carrying large LED lights or air-conditioning units to their locker, these are red flags.
8. Drug odors. Although the human nose is not as powerful as a drug-sniffing canine, it is still a formidable defense against marijuana grow houses and methamphetamine labs. For reference, meth lab odor smells have been compared to rotten eggs and cat urine.
9. Chemical odors such as ammonia, ether, vinegar. Even seemingly innocuous odors, such as ammonia, can be an indicator that there’s a meth lab in the storage unit.
10. A substructure inside the unit. Sometimes a tenant will rearrange the physical makeup of their unit, thus creating a place where they can grow marijuana, cook methamphetamine, or conduct some other type of illicit activity.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SELF-STORAGE MANAGERS
Don’t hesitate to contact the local authorities if something feels amiss.
Hugonnett asked self-storage managers not to worry about making something out of nothing: “Don’t fear overreaction. I want you to overreact. You might be the hero in the next terrorist event.” By no means is this hyperbole. After all, Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, kept explosives in storage units in Kansas – incidentally, McVeigh rented them using a fake ID. Also, the terrorists of the first World Trade Center bombing used self-storage lockers to store and mix their bomb-making materials.
Whenever possible, help police with their investigations.
- Should you allow police canines to train at your facility? In the past, I’ve written about tenant privacy issues and how important it is to allow police bomb and drug detection dogs to train at storage facilities. Generally speaking, I am of the opinion that it is in the best interest of facility managers and the community at large to allow police canines to train onsite.
- Should you share tenant information with the police even if they do not have a subpoena? Detective Hugonnett covered this at the luncheon: “I’m not a lawyer, but if you provide a name and an address or information like that on a criminal case, it’s not going to get you jammed up. Especially if you’re asking for a subpoena, and we tell you we will provide [one].”
- Do police officers show up at self-storage facilities looking for shady characters? No. By the time authorities request information on a tenant, they already have solid intelligence, be it from an informant, a vehicle or license plate. “When we run into a storage locker of an individual that we believe is involved with narcotics, a lot of times we have the individual, but we don’t have the name,” Hugonnett explained. If self-storage facility managers are able to give the police information on the suspect, it makes it much easier for police to build a case, get a warrant and make an arrest.
Put simply, by working closely with law enforcement, we can keep our self-storage facilities safe and secure.