Local News

September 13, 2012

Accused ice machine thief may face charges in four states

Michael Hilton said a Facebook group of business owners helped authorities track down a man who the owners say was systematically stealing money from their ice machines in four states.

Hilton said his wife, TeQuita, owns Polar Ice Express which has Twice the Ice locations in Gordon County, Murray County and Whitfield County. He said they tried contacting law enforcement agencies in several locations, but the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office provided the most help after locations at Rocky Face and on Cleveland Highway were robbed over the summer. The alleged thief was caught in Florida on Sept. 4.

John Thomas Steiner Jr., 47, of Chattanooga, was arrested by the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office and charged with criminal mischief, burglary, possession of burglary tools and grand theft. He remains in jail there on $13,100 bond. Officials said he will face charges in possibly dozens of jurisdictions for allegedly robbing ice machines in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee.

“We (Twice the Ice business owners) formed a Facebook group among owners to track this guy as he moved from (ice) house to house to house, looking at where he was hitting and where he was burglarizing,” Hilton said. “We thank (Whitfield) Sheriff (Scott) Chitwood. We were not able to get any help from any of the police departments anywhere in Georgia, Alabama or Florida. When we called them they just didn’t want to deal with it. It wasn’t their problem. It wasn’t a crime in their county yet, so they weren’t going to look for the guy.”

TeQuita Hilton said her family went into the business in 2005, mortgaging their home to do so. Now, they have 10 ice machines, and they’re among Twice the Ice owners looking into additional security measures to prevent more thefts.

“It was kind of scary at first,” she said. “We bought the 11th machine off the assembly line, so we got in at the ground floor of it, and that’s the one that sits in Rocky Face.”

The Facebook group the business owners formed shows thousands of dollars went missing over the summer and 61 locations were targeted. They shared surveillance video and photos with one another, and determined the thief was using their own public website as a map for his plans.

“From the way the break-ins were occurring, I don’t think this guy would have stopped until he got caught,” TeQuita Hilton said.

Detective Scott Lance with the Whitfield sheriff’s office said he shared information about the local crimes on the Regional Organized Crime Information Center, a database that connects distant law enforcement agencies with one another.

“We’ve been working on it, and we sent information out to the Southeastern region,” he said. “We just happened to get lucky down in Florida where they had an alarm system on theirs, and the patrolmen down there were able to catch up.”

Michael Hilton said his family’s businesses were fortunate to not lose large amounts of cash, but others were not so lucky. Lance said Steiner typically hit ice machines in the middle of the night when no one was there.

Chattanoogan.com reported Steiner is the son of former Ruby Falls owner Jack Steiner. Authorities in Whitfield County and Wakulla County said they had heard the same thing but had not been able to confirm it. Ruby Falls is an attraction near Chattanooga.

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