A series of bulk purchases of cheap, prepaid cellphones at Wal-Mart stores across central and eastern Missouri in the last week prompted multiple local law enforcement offices to notify federal investigators.
Meanwhile, other local agencies passed word to the FBI about thefts of small propane tanks in the Kansas City area.
Yet no law enforcement officials report anything, other than perhaps timing, that suggests a link between the propane thefts and the cellphone purchases.
FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said Friday the agency had been contacted by local law enforcement officials about the cellphone purchases and also was aware of the propane tank thefts.
“The local authorities are investigating the propane tanks,” she said. The FBI is investigating the cellphone purchases.
“You have local law enforcement acting out of an abundance of caution,” Patton said. But “we have seen similar purchases of bulk cellphones in the past, and it has been concluded that these transactions were unrelated to terrorism.”
Criminals sometimes use prepaid cellphones to avoid surveillance because the devices can make it harder for investigators to link a phone to a particular person. And terrorists and insurgents have used them in recent years as triggering mechanisms on homemade explosives.
Propane tanks can be fashioned into explosive or incendiary devices.
But prepaid cellphones also are popular with consumers who lack the credit for contract wireless plans. They are also popular among immigrants, who often buy calling time needed to make international calls from small stores that cater to them. And thefts of propane tanks, often for resale, are common.
The incidents come at a jittery time in the wake of the recent mass killing in San Bernardino, Calif., by a couple apparently inspired by the Islamic State.
Local police departments and sheriffs offices in Macon, Lebanon, Jefferson City, Columbia, Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Ava said they received reports of people buying large numbers of cellphones from Wal-Mart stores. Sometimes police talked to the buyers. Sometimes they arrived too late. Such purchases are legal, so there were no arrests.
Laclede County Sheriff Wayne Merritt called the purchase of 59 phones in Lebanon before 4 a.m. Dec. 5 “very suspicious.”
In Macon, Macon County Sheriff’s Sgt. Curt Glover said, “I do not feel there’s an immediate threat to the community. This has been going on for the last 15 years. They sell them and make a whole lot more money on them than” they pay.
In south-central Missouri, a Wal-Mart clerk in Lebanon called police when shortly before 4 a.m. Dec. 5, two men were purchasing dozens of prepaid cellphones. The men, one from Iowa and the other from Dearborn, Mich., alternated paying for the phones with their company credit cards, said Merritt. Store policy apparently limits the purchase of the phones to two at a time.
In all, he said, the two men bought 59 phones there.
Police talked with the buyers, who were told there was nothing illegal about the purchases. Police also checked for outstanding warrants before sending the men on their way, the sheriff said.
“I just tell my people not to be tagging people” based on ethnicity “or being suspicious, but to pay attention and give us a call. We like to be informed of that stuff so we’re not surprised by anything,” Merritt said. “But it’s suspicious. It’s very suspicious.”
The Lebanon Police Department issued a brief statement, saying, “Upon speaking (with) the two males, it was determined that there was no further reason to detain the subjects, and they were allowed to leave.” It said it had passed along the information to the FBI.
Law enforcement received similar reports within 24 or so hours in Columbia, Jefferson City, Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Macon. Each time, a clerk or a shopper noted the seemingly unusual purchases.
But the accounts differed slightly from place to place. In Columbia, a “concerned citizen” reported “five or more males” making the purchases, said Officer Latisha Stroer.
Jefferson City Police Capt. Doug Shoemaker said someone reported three men had bought some prepaid phones, although the number of devices did not seem very large.
At Cape Girardeau, police said a purchase of about 10 phones prompted a call to authorities. A larger purchase was made at a Wal-Mart in nearby Jackson.
The Ava Police Department addressed on its Facebook page a report from about 6 a.m. Dec. 5 of a man “who had purchased a large amount of cell phones from Wal-Mart and had left a cell phone in the restroom. Officers responded and secured the phone.” Officers there spoke with the man and released him.
In Macon, another shopper called authorities after noticing someone buying about three dozen prepaid phones. The buyer left, but Glover said a store video showed a man who appeared to be in his 30s using an American Express card.
Rebecca Wu, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis FBI office, which fielded the Macon County referral, echoed what the agency said in Kansas City.
“In the past, we have seen similar activity,” she said. “Most people are now concerned about the terrorism aspect. In the past, what we have seen is not related to terrorism.”
Independence Police Officer John Syme said 28 propane tanks that were locked in a cage were reported stolen Sunday night from a CVS store at 1545 E. 23rd St.
“People take all sorts of things that are odd,” Syme said. “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.
“It definitely could be a very serious matter. Our intel unit is working with area agencies and discussing it.”
A similar theft reportedly occurred recently in Lee’s Summit. Kansas City police said they were unaware of similar thefts.
Robert Lewis Dear, the man charged in the Nov. 27 shooting rampage at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colo., that killed three and injured nine, had taken propane tanks to the clinic that authorities believe he planned to use in the attack, according to The Associated Press.
Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI agent, said it wouldn’t make sense for a terrorist to buy cellphones in large quantities at one store.
“If you were planning to use those in a terrorist act, you wouldn’t be buying in bulk and attracting attention to yourself,” he said. “It would be a stupid way to start buying things to be used as bomb detonators because the first thing people do is call the police.
“I don’t know what they could be used for in terms of why you make bulk purchases of cellphones. It could be a business-related thing; maybe it’s for resale. But if the police are satisfied with it and don’t seem to be concerned, I’m not concerned.”
Lanza said the process shows that the “see something, say something” concept is working.
On the issue of the stolen propane tanks, Lanza said he takes his cue from the FBI.
“These two events are probably totally unrelated,” he said. “If the FBI is not involved in this, then they’re probably not considering there’s any link to terrorism. … Each of those tanks is probably worth 10, 15 bucks, and they’re probably pretty easy to steal.”