The burglary began with the sound of an angle grinder howling against metal. Within a few minutes, they were inside.
They wore long sleeves, hats and face coverings, the individual figures distinguishable on the security footage only by the different styles of sneakers on their feet.
Inside the unassuming industrial building in Gorham, the team of three moved inch by inch around the rooms, wary of motion sensors, while a fourth person stood watch outside. A couple of hours later, they left with a mega score: nearly 30 pounds of marijuana flower and 500 concentrated THC cartridges, worth an estimated $59,000.
It was the latest in a string of audacious cannabis robberies from Maine to Rhode Island that police suspect were committed by a crew of burglars, including two brothers, from Boston’s South Shore.
Since at least 2020, police believe, the band of burglars have been cutting their way into buildings that house the inconspicuous grow operations that underpin the legal marijuana market in Maine. As grow operations proliferate, keeping away prying eyes becomes more difficult, even when operations are located away from pedestrians and homes.
Burglars are capitalizing on legal marijuana, but no one knows the extent of the problem because no one is tracking it.
Recreational marijuana businesses must adhere to state standards for security, but medical providers have resisted such regulations. It means many are left to protect their operations mostly on their own.
Placing grow operations far from densely populated areas may reduce traffic around the buildings, but seclusion also provides a layer of protection for criminals who make the bet that no one will hear them cutting open a wall in the dead of night.
Although most grows are low key and do not have external signs declaring their business, some clues are hard to hide. One common marker is the oversized heating and cooling systems, bigger than the building might typically require. Other tip-offs can include tanks of nitrogen, empty bags of fertilizer, discarded root balls and empty plastic plant pots left in plain view and, of course, the telltale smell.
At the Gorham building, an alarm finally tripped after the break-in began, but it was too late. The thieves had forced their way into two rooms inside the building where marijuana was stored, leaving behind an angry business owner and a large, rectangular hole in an exterior wall.
Police might have had little to go on. But marijuana businesses tend to take their security seriously. One of the building’s security cameras, equipped with a microphone, captured a vital clue that, coupled with images of a license plate, led police to a suspect, court records show.
“Where the (expletive) is Dario?” one burglar clearly said to another.
“He’s putting the trunks in the truck.”
The name Dario, and images of the truck, would become important clues for Gorham police Detective Stephen Hinkley.
In January, a Portland judge granted Hinkley a warrant to obtain detailed information from one suspect’s cellphone, including live location information for critical dates around two burglaries, along with text messages, phone call logs, voicemails and any other data exchanged from the device. No arrests have been made, and the case remains open. But the facts laid out in the warrant affidavit offer a rare view into the ways that opportunistic criminals are capitalizing on the explosion of legal marijuana businesses in Maine.
How frequently marijuana businesses are victimized in Maine is not known.
Although the Office of Marijuana Policy, the state’s sole regulator for legal marijuana, requires licensed businesses to report burglaries, robberies and other crimes, not every business knows to do so, said David Heidrich, the office’s spokesperson. What reports and data OMP has received are locked up in an internal computer system – and, because of confidentiality laws, the raw information cannot be released to the public. So far, OMP has not compiled the information to look for patterns, Heidrich said. Doing so would be a large undertaking, he said.
That means no one knows whether crimes against marijuana cultivators are going up over time.
“We are not a law enforcement entity, and our role in regulating cannabis is to ensure licensee and registrant compliance with Maine’s adult and medical use of marijuana laws,” Heidrich wrote in response to a request for such data. “Thefts and burglaries are crimes, and the best source for information about criminal activity is and has always been law enforcement.”
But there also is no clearinghouse maintained by police for data about crimes against marijuana businesses.
Although every police department in the nation must report annually to the FBI certain types of crimes, including burglaries and robberies, crimes against marijuana businesses are not counted separately. And under federal law, marijuana is still a scheduled drug on par with heroin, meaning state-licensed marijuana businesses are illegal in the eyes of federal law enforcement. Adding to their risks is the fact that largely because they are considered illegal under federal law, marijuana businesses deal mostly in cash, leaving them open to theft.
Law enforcement and marijuana regulators in Colorado have done a better job than Maine of tracking crimes associated with the legal marijuana industry, but it remains a difficult task because many police departments are still modernizing how they count and catalog crimes.
Police in Denver, a city of 2.82 million people and 1,100 legal pot businesses, began tracking crimes that involve marijuana and the marijuana industry when recreational sales were legalized in 2012. Since then, burglary has been the top crime against marijuana businesses, even if its prevalence has declined slightly over time – with an average of 118 reported break-ins annually, representing 58 percent of reported crimes against the industry through 2019, the latest year with available data.
One Maine-based marijuana security professional said some cultivators have relied too heavily on a sense that Maine’s reputation as a low-crime, idyllic place means they can relax security standards. The executive at Tetrapoint LLC, a South Portland-based cannabis security firm that focuses on moving money and marijuana around the state, predicted the need for security services will continue to grow with the industry, and said security measures fill a gap in the insurance plans available to marijuana entrepreneurs.
“The tendency is to say, the bank’s only a half hour away, why would we pay people to drive there?” said the executive, who requested anonymity to prevent being targeted for robbery while he’s on the job. “We have clients who are next door to a bank, and they still utilize our services.”
Over time, police also have warmed up to treating the owners of marijuana businesses like any other victims when they report crimes.
“In several different communities, we’ve found that local law enforcement are very friendly because it’s driving new business,” the security executive said. “Some folks may not be particularly happy about the industry, but it’s here, it’s now and it’s happening.”
That was the case in Gorham.
The owner of the grow business hit in October, who asked not to be identified because he fears being targeted again by people who have not yet been charged, said he was able to replay detailed footage of the burglary and that he turned the recordings over to Hinkley.
He praised police for their professionalism in responding promptly and taking the case seriously.
Hinkley, the Gorham detective, reviewed the security footage taken from inside and outside the building, he wrote in the warrant affidavit. The burglars knew about the cameras. Before they began sawing into the building, someone tilted one of them up toward the sky.
But they did not disable them all, and appear to have made another critical mistake.
About two hours before the break-in began, a white Chevy pickup truck pulled into the building’s parking lot, backed up toward a camera, turned around and left, briefly exposing its license plate. It was a Massachusetts registration, and all six digits were legible. Hinkley ran the plate, and it came back to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Hinkley called a detective in the coastal fishing community who knew the truck’s owner, a man named Dario Almeida, 21, Hinkley wrote in the affidavit. The New Bedford police detective gave Hinkley a recent known cellphone number for Almeida, who’d had contact with New Bedford police recently.
A week later, the New Bedford detective sent Hinkley an email. Dario Almeida and his brother Rafael were suspects in another set of marijuana burglaries in Warwick, Rhode Island, linked by the same white Chevy Silverado spotted outside the grow house in Gorham, Hinkley wrote in the affidavit. He did not state when the Rhode Island burglaries occurred.
Realizing the scope of his investigation was widening, Hinkley pinged the Maine Information and Analysis Center, a police intelligence unit set up to battle domestic terrorism after 9/11 that now focuses on domestic crime. Its mission is to share information between police agencies.
Then another investigator with Gorham police, Detective Sgt. Dan Young, recalled an earlier marijuana burglary at a different facility in Gorham. On the night of Thanksgiving 2020, someone had cut through the exterior of that building, and then forced through seven more walls to get to the marijuana inside, although the amount of marijuana stolen was not specified in Hinkley’s affidavit.
After Hinkley reached out to the state police intelligence unit, analysts replied with bulletins describing similar burglaries in South Portland. Someone had attempted a break-in at a South Portland marijuana business on June 19, followed by a successful burglary at a different marijuana facility in August, where the exact same truck appeared to have been used by the perpetrators, Hinkley wrote in the affidavit.
On the same night as one of the South Portland cases, Hinkley wrote, another marijuana business in Westbrook had been burglarized.
Hinkley sent a new bulletin to MIAC, which distributed it statewide. A detective in Androscoggin County got in touch to report another similar marijuana burglary on July 31, where the perpetrators also had cut their way into the building.
Since June of last year, seven Maine marijuana businesses have been victims, Hinkley wrote, and the investigation continues.
Asked to discuss its details, Gorham Police Chief Christopher Sanborn declined to answer questions about how close detectives were to making arrests, whether federal agencies are involved. Police in South Portland and Warwick, Rhode Island, also did not return a call and email asking for details on the progress of their investigations.
“This is an open investigation that we are currently working on,” Sanborn said. “I’m sorry, but I cannot comment any further at this time.”