CHICAGO — A 40-year veteran of the school bus business, Greg Bonnett had never heard of anything like this: Eight of his full-size, 40-foot-long yellow buses were missing when workers arrived at the yard on the Far South Side of Chicago early Friday.
But the 5:30 a.m. call with that news wasn’t the biggest surprise of Bonnett’s day.
GPS units aboard the buses indicated the vehicles were on the West Side. Bonnett headed in that direction and wound up at a scrap yard.
“I expected to pull up and meet the police and see eight buses,” Bonnett said. “I got here and I saw exactly what you’re looking at now. A pile of scrap with school bus yellow.”
The buses had been reduced to a towering tangle of fenders, springs, seats and sheet metal. On one scrap the name of the bus company Bonnett co-owns could still be seen, “Sunrise.”
“This was not a happy day,” Bonnett said.
The buses were stolen sometime after the yard was locked at 7 p.m. Thursday, police said. The vehicles were discovered missing when workers showed up at 5 a.m. and found the gate to the bus yard open and a padlock broken.
When police arrived at SRV Metal Scrapper, several people who apparently worked in the scrap yard ran into a building, police said. Officers initially apprehended one person and later took three others into custody, including the owner of the scrap yard, who was found hiding in the rafters of the building, police said. Charges are pending, police said.
The shredded buses were in a towering pile, and engines and transmissions already had been cut in half, police said.
It wasn’t clear how many drivers were involved in the shift of the buses to the scrap yard, but police said they were surprised by the audacity of the operation.
“It was unusual to see such a large-scale theft,” said Eugene Roy, commander of police Central Investigations Unit.
All of the metal will be impounded as evidence, Roy said.
Bonnett, president of Sunrise Transportation, estimated his loss at $250,000. Four of the buses were equipped with wheelchair lifts for special education students, he said.
As scrap, the buses probably would be worth $1,500 to $3,500 each, said Joe Pickard, chief economist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington, D.C.
“It seems like a lot of effort for not a big return,” Pickard said.
But Gary Bush, a police officer for 32 years before he began keeping track of thefts for the institute, said thieves will take whatever they can.
“Anything that can be stolen, has been stolen,” he said. “Literally anything of any value is a potential target.”
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote this week about bronze plaques being stolen from grave sites, which authorities said is becoming common across the country.
Bush said the most extreme case he’s seen involved a central air conditioning unit bolted to a 4-by-6-foot concrete slab together weighing hundreds of pounds. The crooks were unable to remove the unit, so they worked the slab loose.
“Thieves will steal anything,” he said.
Bonnett said he plans to replace the buses but that he should be able to fulfill commitments to area schools.
“No Sunrise kids missed school” Friday, he said. “They could steal 10 more and we’ll still get them to school on Monday.”