It was the most notorious crime associated with self-storage in history. On April 19, 1995, terrorist Timothy McVeigh kept explosives in a Kansas self-storage unit until the time was right to strike. He and an accomplice loaded the supplies into a rental truck and drove across the state line, eventually parking the truck and its lethal load in front of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The toll was shocking: 168 people dead, 680 others injured, and 324 buildings damaged or destroyed.
Unfortunately, self-storage facilities have been a favorite haven for criminals of all types, from drug dealers to counterfeiters to thieves. With more than 50,000 storage facilities in the U.S., the opportunities to stage crimes are large. But the good news is that over the years, reports of crime at storage sites appear to be in decline.
“Over the last 10-plus years we’ve done such a good job of educating managers to be more vigilant about their tenants and what’s being stored,” says Scott Zucker, a partner at Weissmann Zucker Euster & Katz, P.C., a law firm based out of Atlanta. “Where we have third-generation facilities that have access controls and security cameras, I would have thought that would limit the use of self-storage for criminal activity.”
While sophisticated surveillance cameras, high-definition monitors, and electronic keypads work to prevent criminal activity, observant facility managers and neighbors have probably helped to prevent major crimes by reporting suspicious activities to law enforcement authorities.
“There are plenty of occasions where there is no report, where a conscientious manager sees something and says something and the FBI swoops in and deals with it,” says Jeff Greenberger, an attorney with Cincinnati-based Katz Greenberger & Norton, LLP.
Storage managers have a duty to know to whom they are renting. They also have a responsibility to report suspicious activities to police. But what’s the line between being vigilant and invading a tenant’s privacy? The law has established precedents in several cases, generally favoring law enforcement.
Trust Your Gut
Incident: A tip from a suspicious neighbor about a boy’s “odd” behavior at a self-storage unit in Minnesota helped police unravel a plot to carry out a school massacre in 2014. A woman spotted a boy with a backpack acting strangely and walking through her backyard to the nearby storage facility. Authorities eventually searched the boy’s storage unit and home, where they found three fully functional bombs, other bomb-making materials, gunpowder, numerous firearms, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The Waseca, Minn., police captain said that because of the neighbor’s actions, “Unimaginable tragedy has been prevented.”
Law enforcement officers can’t be everywhere at all times, so they are strong proponents of the “see something, say something” method. While manager vigilance can help prevent some crimes, they need to take utmost care not to put themselves in harm’s way.
“Everyone in security wants to put the manager on the first line of defense,” Greenberger observes. “The manager’s role is more of being suspicious up front, asking the right questions of prospective applicants to try to gauge the validity of their need. We should be naturally suspicious of people who are vague, refusing to provide full and proper ID.”
Greenberger acknowledges that managers can be proactive in following up on their suspicions by reviewing video and gate logs or showing up unannounced in various locations around the facility.
Lori O’Brien, a special agent with the Phoenix FBI, says two security measures have proven to be valuable in conducting investigations. “The use of security cameras, which provide for recording, allow for tracking and identification,” O’Brien says. “Also, devices that record entry and exit of users—either by codes, key cards, or the like—are also valuable for determining who is in a facility at a given time. All facilities should establish relationships with local law enforcement so they know who to call in the event they witness anything of concern.”
Establishing these relationships provide an added layer of protection for the facility while reinforcing the emphasis management is placing on tenants’ peace-of-mind security. If managers have a strong suspicion that illegal activities are in progress, they are advised to let the professionals handle the situation.
“Any time illegal activity is suspected, law enforcement should be contacted,” O’Brien advises. “Start with local law enforcement and they will make any notifications that are appropriate to the situation at hand.”
Incident: In 2011, a suitcase containing nearly a quarter million dollars was discovered in a Salt Lake City-area storage unit by police dogs learning to sniff out drugs during a training exercise. A police officer arranged to take several newly certified dogs to a storage facility for a “real-world” experience. However, instead of sniffing out the bait unit, where police planted drugs, the dogs’ attention was focused on a nearby unit. After obtaining a search warrant to open the unit, the dogs found a large suitcase, which smelled like marijuana and contained a duffel bag stuffed with cash.
One way that some self-storage businesses establish ties with local police and sheriff’s departments is to allow K-9 units to train on site on a regular basis. It’s illegal for police to enter a tenant’s unit without a search warrant, but police dogs are legally allowed to sniff around outside doors and on walkways. If police believe there is reasonable cause to search a specific unit, they may seek a search warrant.
“There is no expectation of privacy by self-storage tenants with regard to driveways and hallways of a self-storage facility, only their unit itself,” Zucker says. “So a drug dog that walks along a corridor and smells something in a unit can be the basis for a search warrant to go into that unit. Odors emanating from a unit are not protected as a privacy issue.”
Zucker recalls a case where drug-sniffing dogs smelled something suspicious outside a rented storage unit. After police got a search warrant, they found drugs and arrested the tenant, who later claimed the search was illegal. A court ruled that the search was not illegal.
Zucker says the tenant gives up a limited amount of privacy by signing a rental agreement. For example, if a unit is in an area that needs repairs and the facility manager contacts the tenant for access but the tenant never responds, the manager still has the right to enter the unit to perform the repairs.
“If he goes into the unit to perform repairs and sees drugs, explosives, or weapons, he has not violated the tenant’s privacy and can contact the police,” Zucker says. “Similarly, if the tenant is acting strangely and the behavior of their access and egress to the space creates some suspicion and the manager contacts the police, that’s perfectly legal.”
Zucker recounts a recent case where a tenant failed to pay his rent and the unit went into a lien sale. At the auction, illegal medications were found in the unit and the police were called. The tenant made a claim of an illegal search, alleging there were no grounds to search the unit.
“As soon as the tenant became delinquent, which led to the sale of his property, the tenant lost all expectations of privacy and the search was found to be legal,” Zucker says.
Traces Of Misconduct
Criminals leave other telltale signs of illicit deeds that managers should take into account. Law enforcement experts say unusual odors or corroded doors can be a tip-off to illegal drug manufacturing in a unit. Also, what’s left behind in a dumpster can indicate illegal activity. An unusual number of antifreeze cans or discarded drug boxes should raise a manager’s suspicions.
Another indication of illegal activity may be when a tenant visits the facility often or at odd hours. “With drugs or bombs or anything like that, you’re definitely going to see more frequent activity,” says Jacob Mueller, a private investigator with Global Eye Investigations in Phoenix. “If you’re storing your furniture, are you really going to be going there every day to get something? Probably not.”
While it may be impractical or illegal to conduct background checks on tenants without their permission, there are other ways to monitor suspicious activities. “You can learn much more about a person from social media than you ever could by looking at criminal records,” says Mueller. “There’s some type of addiction on social media that even people we found doing everything else to try and stay hidden, for some reason they’ve got to brag about something and tell the whole world and many times that’s how they get caught.”
One of an operator’s best defenses against the storage of drugs, weapons, or hazardous materials is a strong rental agreement, which outlines the types of materials that are forbidden at the facility. “The reason why the rental agreement is so important is for the everyday tenant who is going to store gas cans or leftover chemicals from a dry cleaning company or perishable food that attracts insects and rodents. If the manager discovers those items, they can communicate with the customer and explain it’s a prohibited use under the rental agreement and have customer remove them,” Zucker says.
Incident: A possible pipe bomb along with several test tubes labeled with the names of biological and chemical weapons materials were discovered when an abandoned storage unit was sold at a recent auction. After the discovery, the buyer contacted the facility management, who immediately called the Phoenix Police Department. The Phoenix Hazardous Evidence Response Team responded and searched the unit in personal protective gear. The items of concern were sent to the FBI laboratories in Virginia where it was determined they did not contain the labeled substances. There was never a danger to public safety.
Preventing a tragedy in the first place is always the preferred method of operating a self-storage facility safely, and a vigilant manager who sees something and says something is the key preventive measure.
David Lucas is a freelance writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona.