Bradley Marshall Jr. parked his Chevy pickup truck next to the job site on Linda Avenue, a tree-lined street in Piedmont where he had been hired to repair a leaky waste line.
Finding no one at the customer’s home, Marshall sat in the truck and waited, jotting estimates on a clipboard. Then he heard a tap on the passenger side window, and saw a figure in a ski mask. Turning to the driver’s side, he glimpsed the barrel of a semiautomatic handgun pointed right at his head.
“I put my hands up,” Marshall said, recalling his terror on that July day in 2021, a shudder catching in his throat. “I said, ‘just take everything.’”
Within seconds, the thieves forced Marshall into the street and fled in his Chevy, which was packed with expensive plumbing tools : a new sewer jetter worth $15,000, a saw cutter, jack hammers, two sewer snakes, extension cords, copper and a mechanical shovel. Piedmont police later arrested three people, but Marshall said he could not positively identify them, because they were wearing masks.
The truck-jacking at gunpoint was one in a string of power-tool heists in the Bay Area last year, a crime that appears to be surging and growing more brazen, leaving some contractors in a state of perpetual anxiety.
“I’ve been working down here 20 years, and it’s never been like this,” said Marshall, whose family-owned business, Harry Clark Plumbing and Heating, is teetering from the emotional and financial toll of these robberies. In the past 18 months, according to Marshall’s father, Bradley Marshall Sr., thieves have stolen at least eight trucks and scores of tools from the company.
Fears are so raw in the East Bay that at a recent meeting of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association, board member Spencer Ferguson, of Mr. Rooter Plumbing, in Oakland, implored his peers to pool their money and hire a security consultant for active shooter and self-defense trainings.
“We found a person from Los Angeles who does trainings for what to do when someone sticks a gun in your face,” said another Oakland plumber, Heiko Dzierzon, explaining how businesses that normally compete are now collaborating to organize a training session. The association’s executive manager, Krystal Reddoch, said she wholeheartedly supports the effort.
Statistics from law enforcement suggest the plumbers’ apprehension is warranted. Oakland police say they saw an uptick in armed power-tool robberies over the past four months, and officers investigated four such stickups in January alone, making two arrests. Contractors who spoke with The Chronicle also noted incidents in Vallejo and San Francisco. Police departments in those cities were not aware of a pattern, though a spokesperson for San Francisco’s robbery detail said that burglaries of construction sites are common.
Some cite evidence that thieves are using digital marketplaces to offload their stolen goods — possibly the same e-commerce sites that help fuel organized retail theft. Trawling on eBay, Dzierzon found a seller with a vast inventory of plumbing and electrical tools, and 1,600 documented sales. An eBay spokesperson who was shown links to the seller’s listings did not comment on them directly, but said the company “has zero tolerance for criminal activity on our platform and have programs and policies in place to monitor our marketplace for stolen items.”
Unconvinced, Dzierzon insisted that e-commerce platforms are rife with plundered items, and said he has seen at least one other sign of an intricate crime ring in action: Weeks ago, he got a call from detectives at the Las Vegas Police Department, saying they had uncovered a $2 million cache of tools, one of which bore the logo for Dzierzon’s company, PipeSpy. The tool was worth between $1,500 and $1,800, Dzierzon said.
While break-ins and thefts have always been a risk of doing business, plumbers and tradespeople say that in the past two years, perpetrators have become more methodical and aggressive. Thieves routinely stake out warehouses or follow work trucks to jobs, preying on workers who have to toil at a fixed location for a long period of time, leaving their vehicles and gear unattended. More and more often, the perpetrators are brandishing guns.
Carpenters, painters, construction workers and other crafts laborers all have to watch out for this type of crime, especially with downtowns to empty amid the pandemic, and projects still underway, said Andreas Cluver, secretary-treasurer of the Alameda County Building Trades Council.
He acknowledged that the mom-and-pop work crews are more vulnerable because they may have to park far away and lug their own power tools to a job site. By contrast, union workers at large sites typically have security guards and tool sheds to lock up their gear.
This may explain why the power tool crime wave has heavily impacted small plumbing companies, prompting workers to compulsively check their surroundings, or walk off the job to make sure their trucks are still parked outside.
“My crew was robbed at gunpoint of video equipment twice in three weeks,” said Ygnacio Becerra, owner of Oakland Rooter Plumbing Co., referring to a spate of robberies during the fall, when his company was hired to repair sewers in Oakland’s Dimond and Laurel districts — work that requires pricey cameras with radio transmitters that can locate defective spots in sewers.
Tradespeople have grown so desperate that some are demanding armed security guards in their contracts, while others, such as Ferguson, occasionally include an extra worker in contract bids, “just to watch and be a deterrent.” Some contractors refuse to serve neighborhoods in Oakland that they perceive as dangerous — one plumber in Castro Valley said he’s limited work in Oakland to big jobs with homeowners’ associations that he’s known for years.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has hired Oakland police officers to protect work sites, representatives of the Police Department said — a spokeperson for the utility said PG&E is “constantly evaluating the threat environment and adopting appropriate measures to help keep our coworkers in the field safe.” Companies of all sizes have hardened their infrastructure and vehicle fleets, installing GPS devices and kill switches on trucks — though thieves have learned how to circumvent these mechanism, Marshall Jr. said.
Dzierzon suffered several harrowing thefts over the past two years, including a shock on New Year’s Day in 2021, when perpetrators drove a pickup truck through the rollup door of his shop in Oakland before ransacking the place for tools and pipe inspection cameras. Last year, robbers pulled up to one of his work sites in the Oakland hills, put a gun to the foreman’s head and ordered all the workers behind a house while they emptied tools from a company van, Dzierzon said.
Although the sudden intensification of these power tool capers has bedeviled law enforcement, criminologists point to several converging factors.
“You need a few ingredients to create a crime wave, and one is opportunity, and one is incentive,” said Stanford University law Professor George Fisher. Incentives — namely, need and desire — don’t change over time, he said, but opportunities and circumstances shift.
With fewer people carrying cash nowadays, it’s no longer profitable to rob individuals on a street, which might explain why thieves have switched to burglarizing garages , swiping catalytic converters , pillaging drug store shelves or stealing tools. E-commerce sites provide a convenient portal to sell loot, often with relative anonymity.
Fisher wondered, additionally, whether precautionary measures like locks and kill switches have made thieves more confrontational, using firearms to demand items they can’t easily snatch from a locked vehicle.
Investigators in the Oakland Police Department attributed the frequency and fierceness of these stickups to “power tools being in high demand, and little to no resistance from the victims,” a spokesperson for the department said.
But contractors who’ve seen — or imagined — the metallic flash of a gun in their driver’s side window say they understand why a person would go numb and obey commands.
“We’ve pretty much told our guys you step back, put your hands up, and don’t risk your life or try to be a hero,” said Mike Bonetti of Frank Bonetti Plumbing in Castro Valley.
Bradley Marshall Jr. agreed.
Since last year’s truck-jacking, he’s become skittish and more strategic, only hauling tools that are “absolutely necessary” for a job. He’s prepared to sacrifice them, he said, because “no tool is worth your life.”
Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @rachelswan