Law enforcement officers from several local, regional and national agencies, including the FBI, are searching more than 400 acres of land just north of Phippsburg for construction equipment suspected to have been stolen during multiple burglaries in several states during the past several months.
Routt County Sheriff John Warner said the ongoing investigation has recovered heavy equipment including a D4C Caterpillar bulldozer, a John Deere backhoe, four all-terrain vehicles and a trailer containing "miscellaneous equipment." The land is off Routt County Road 23 on the southern edge of Oak Creek.
The total value of the items listed by Warner, according to several online construction retailers, is at least $50,000 and easily could exceed $100,000.
The property also contains hazardous waste suspected to be from the production of methamphetamine, Steamboat Springs police Officer Garrett Wiggins said. Wiggins serves on the Greater Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team, or GRAMNET, one of numerous agencies that began executing search warrants on the property Saturday, Wiggins said.
"It's a hazardous waste site right now," Wiggins said, adding that Routt County HAZMAT workers have been on the site, and a unit from Denver has been called in. "There is a possibility of a meth dump -- they've uncovered some things that are indicative of meth."
Warner confirmed Tuesday that Gerald W. Starr of Oklahoma is the owner of the property being searched. According to the Routt County Assessor's Office, Starr owns two adjacent plots totaling 413 acres near C.R. 23. Starr purchased the plots in October 2005 for $725,000. There are no homes on the hilly, shrub-covered parcels, which are classified as "vacant agricultural" land.
Warner said Starr owns a construction company in Oklahoma that recently did business in Routt County. Warner said the stolen equipment is from several states, and law officers from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas are working with the FBI and the Routt County Sheriff's Office.
Four people are in custody in Eagle and Routt counties on charges related to the investigation, Warner said. He would not provide the names of those in custody.
Wiggins said the people in custody are employees of Starr and face charges including transporting stolen property and driving with a revoked license. A Steamboat Pilot & Today examination of the Routt County Jail arrest book revealed several people recently arrested on charges of driving under revocation, but none could be linked to this case.
The investigation into the stolen property began several weeks ago, Wiggins said. "Community involvement" and reports of suspicious activity led law officers to the property. A search helicopter flew over the site last week and identified several items that fit the description of the stolen property.
Law officers from multiple jurisdictions began searching the property Saturday and discovered the hazardous waste while digging for the stolen items, Wiggins and Sheriff's Office deputies said.
Oklahoma court records indicate that a Gerald Starr was charged this month with attempted manufacture of a controlled dangerous substance, a felony. The case is pending. Although a date of birth was not available to confirm that it is the same Gerald Starr who owns property in Oak Creek, the court records list the defendant as a resident of Kansas, Okla. Phone listings show that a Gerald Starr and Cyndi Starr share a phone number in Kansas, Okla. A Cyndi S. is listed on the deed for the Oak Creek property, as is Gerald W. Starr.
Karen Craig lives near the Starr property in Oak Creek and spent part of her Memorial Day weekend watching various law enforcement vehicles drive by her house.
"They had everything coming in on Saturday," Craig said. "Police, fire trucks and hazardous (material) teams."
Craig said she was not aware of strange activity on the property during recent months.
"We can't see back there from our house," she said Tuesday. "We've just seen people pass by. We knew it was guys who had worked for the owner, and some of them were living back there for a while, even though there's not much to live on back there. But having big equipment back there isn't unusual."
Warner said officers are returning stolen items to their owners.
Wiggins said the investigation likely will continue today, if not longer.
"The biggest concern right now is public safety," Wiggins said. "We're making sure there's no environmental hazards that might present a risk to the public."