Police investigation into mass cellphone buys now includes stolen propane tanks

Cops are looking into the purchases of large quantities of cellphones made at several Missouri Walmarts.

Cops are looking into the purchases of large quantities of cellphones made at several Missouri Walmarts.

The bulk purchases of more than 200 cellphones from seven Missouri Walmarts over the course of a single weekend continues to draw the attention of law enforcement – particularly combined with the theft of more than 48 propane canisters in the state during the same time frame.

There is no information to suggest the suspicious cellphone purchases and propane thefts are related at this time.

Police in Columbia, Jackson, Cape Girardeau, Lebanon, Ava, Jefferson City and Macon have each said they’ve received reports about large numbers of cellphones bought in area Walmarts. The majority of purchases occurred during the late-night hours of Dec. 4 and the early-morning hours of Dec. 5.

"There’s a lot of different things that can be done with propane tanks”

- John Syme, Independence police officer

Details in some of the cases are sketchy, but at least three dozen phones were purchased at one time in the Macon, Jefferson City, Lebanon and Jackson stores. A “large number” were purchased in Ava, cops said, and “dozens” were purchased in Columbia, ABC17 reported.  Ten of the phones were bought at Cape Girardeau, according to the Kansas City Star.

The individuals involved have been reported to be as few as two men in Lebanon and as many as five in Columbia. It’s unclear if all of the cases involve the same people or if they are linked, but the same man reportedly was part of the purchasing group in Ava and Lebanon, which happened a little more than two hours apart on Dec. 5.

That man left a phone in the store bathroom at Ava, prompting authorities to respond.

“While speaking with Walmart employees, the subject who left the phone returned to the store to get it,” the Ava Police Department posted on Facebook. “Officers spoke with the male subject, who was of Middle Eastern descent, and asked for identification, which was provided.”

Officers had no reason to detain the man and he was allowed to leave. Subsequent checks with other local Walmart stores determined the man also had bought phones in Lebanon.

“These people were, they were foreign-speaking,” Laclede County Sheriff Wayne Merritt told KSPR about the men who bought phones at the Lebanon Walmart.

The three purchasers in Jefferson City had “accents,” cops told KRCG, but information on the buyers in other locales is scarce.

Meanwhile, Missouri police also are trying to determine who is behind a series of propane thefts.

A BP gas station in Lee’s Summit reported the theft of 18-20 canisters from an outside cage in late November, according to FOX4KC. A nearby CVS also reported an unknown quantity of stolen canisters the same night.

On Dec. 6, the day after the phone-buying spree is believed to have ended, a CVS in Independence had 28 tanks stolen from a locked cage.

“People take all sorts of things that are odd,” Independence Police Officer John Syme told the Star. “But it’s definitely something that would be a ‘see something, say something’-type situation, where you definitely want to be on higher alert. There’s a lot of different things that can be done with propane tanks.”

Syme added: “It could be a very serious matter. Our intel unit is working with area agencies and discussing it.”

Why the focus on seemingly innocuous items such as propane tanks and cellphones?

Terrorists have long used mobile phones to set off explosive ordinances, and propane tanks have been used in improvised bombs. For example, the thwarted car bomb attack in Times Square in 2010 was set to use four propane tanks as part of the explosive device.

“You need to take notice,” Meritt said. “You need to let us know about it, because it doesn’t hurt to check on it. You’re not being racist or anything like that. You’re just protecting yourself.”