Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Maple sugar producer Jack Chase holds bundles of maple sap tubing similar to lines stolen from his Hubbardton sugarhouse.
RUTLAND — When Richard Green began making maple syrup in 1982, he said he never thought about security at his sugar shack.
“Sugarhouses were never locked back then,” the 64-year-old Poultney sugar maker said Tuesday.
Nowadays, Green said he locks his shack up if he goes on vacation or away for a weekend.
But he said it never occurred to him that security was an issue on Nov. 6 when he did some preparation work for canning his maple sugar only to return 12 hours later to find the canner, some of his sugar, a number of tools and even the grade labels he attaches to the bottles stolen.
“In my opinion, someone had some syrup to can. Why else would he take the labels?” Green said.
Vermont State Police Trooper Steven Coote said his interrogation of Bryan W. Parker, the 28-year-old Poultney man charged with stealing thousands of dollars worth of equipment from Green and at least three other sugar makers in Rutland County, suggests Green's guess was close to the mark.
“He was having financial troubles and was looking to start up his own business,” Coote said.
While burglaries in the Rutland area have become a common problem, thefts from sugar shacks, a hallmark of the state's cultural landscape, have only recently been targeted by thieves, according to police and members of the sugar making community.
A big reason for the increased thefts is attributed to the drastically higher price of the equipment.
“Twenty, 30 or 40 years ago, sugar houses just had pans and buckets and covers and spouts,” said Westfield sugar maker Jacques Couture. “Now you have vacuum systems and reverse osmosis that can cost thousands of dollars. Even if you sell it for half price, that's still a lot.”
Couture, who is the chairman of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association, said he didn't think thefts from sugar shacks were any more or less common then they were from residences or businesses in the state, but he said the items stolen from the shacks can be harder to replace and can endanger the livelihoods of their owners.
That sentiment is shared by Hubbardton sugar maker Jack Chase another of Parker's alleged victims.
“A lot of older people rely on the income from their sugar making to pay their bills,” he said. “And people in the maple syrup business do not make a lot of money to start with.”
Chase, 51, realized his sugar shack had been broken into shortly before Thanksgiving.
He said he reported the theft to police and then began doing some investigating of his own.
In a specialized industry like maple syrup making, Chase said he knew there were a limited amount of companies willing to buy or trade the equipment that was stolen.
He focused on one of his missing pieces in particular a 701 CRD burner used to heat the evaporator at his shack.
“I focused on it because it's so rare. You don't see a lot of those around,” he said.
It didn't take long for him to find the missing burner at Bascom Maple Supplies and Equipment in Alstead, N.H. where police say Parker traded the burner and thousands of other pieces of sugaring equipment at the end of November.
Chase reported what he found to the Vermont State Police which worked with Bascom and New Hampshire State Police to connect all of the equipment that Parker brought in to burglaries from four sugar shacks in Hubbardton and Poultney.
A spokesman at Bascoms said Tuesday that Parker had purchased equipment at the store before and the equipment he brought to the store last month didn't arouse suspicion because he was interested in trading the items for new equipment.
Coote credited the local sugar making community and Bascoms with helping police make a breakthrough in the cases, which began being reported in October.
“They were integral in solving the case,” he said.
Parker won't appear in court until January 7 when he will answer to four felony burglary charges.
Chase is convinced, based on calls he's made to other local sugar makers during the last week, that there will be more charges coming against either Parker or someone else.
“I'm getting calls still from other people who are missing stuff and I'll bet a lot of people won't notice they're missing anything until they open up their shacks for next season,” he said.
Chase and Green said they're still missing thousands of dollars worth of tools and equipment that is either still at the New Hampshire store or unaccounted for.
“I've got back about half of the $2,000 worth of equipment that was stolen,” Green said. “I think I'll get about a quarter of what's still missing back.”
Chase calculated his losses at about twice that number.
“I lost about $1,000 worth of hand tools alone and I don't know how I'm going to get them back,” he said.
It's due in part to his losses that Chase said he plans to embark on a project that could help other sugar makers in his situation in the future.
“I want to start a national database for people in the industry so they can report stolen items and alert supply houses immediately so if one crime occurs, other sugar makers know about it,” he said. “If we can alert one another I think it will really make it difficult for perpetrators to commit these acts.”
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