MAHWAH, N.J. -- A Mahwah police detective cracked the theft of more than a ton and a half of backup batteries from cell towers in town with the arrest of a Wood-Ridge ex-con with a long criminal history.
Ryan Michael Whittaker, 37, had dozens of the batteries in his possession when Wallington police arrested him Thursday on an arrest warrant obtained by a Mahwah detective, township Police Chief James N. Batelli said Friday afternoon.
The batteries were stolen from several cell phone towers -- apparently not only in Mahwah, said Batelli, adding that detectives were trying to trace their source.
Detective Sgt. Hebert, who began canvassing area scrap metal sites, also received a match to Whittaker from a fingerprint found at one of the Mahwah locations.
Whittaker's criminal history stretches back nearly two decades to his 18th birthday and includes arrests for theft, burglary and drugs, records show.
"It is believed that [he] was familiar with how these batteries were stored and the operations of alarms from previous work in the electrical field," Batelli said.
A Verizon Wireless field engineer called Mahwah police after finding dozens of 12-volt batteries missing during recent routine tower inspections.
“The area where the batteries were taken from was fenced in and secured with locks that had been removed, along with screws and nuts,” Batelli told Daily Voice. “The alarm system to the cabinet had also been disengaged with electrical tape, so law enforcement wasn't notified at the time.”
While investigating, detectives also found batteries removed from a nearby Sprint tower site, he said.
Sixty-four batteries in all were stolen – 40 from one site and two dozen from another, the chief said.
Most of the thefts "occurred during daylight hours so as not to arouse any suspicions as it would not be unusual for work to be conducted at these sites during business hours," the chief said.
Copper theft has been more common for a much longer time, but backup cell tower batteries – used by the carriers during power outages -- aren’t exactly new targets.
Recent thefts have been reported in Essex County (Cedar Grove), as well as in Pennsylvania, Texas and California, Batelli said.
Bought as scrap at a dollar a pound -- for the lead inside the batteries -- it can produce a few thousand in quick cash for thieves, authorities say.
“On average, the batteries weigh approximately 40 pounds each,” Batelli said. “The cost to replace them is approximately $10,000 at each site.”
Carriers pass the cost for replacing them on to customers – who could also lose service if the power goes out before then, police say.
There were no outages following the Mahwah thefts, Batelli noted.
Whittaker remained held in the Bergen County Jail pending a detention hearing, charged with burglary and theft.