John O’Holleran was at his desk when he got the call. The vice president of the Chicago office of American Consulting Engineers was told that one of his firm’s field surveyors had been the victim of a gruesome hit-and-run robbery. O’Holleran instructed the victim’s work partner to sit inside his truck and try to calm down while the paramedics did their job. Then, O’Holleran jumped into his car and headed down to the crime scene.

A few moments earlier that day, on Oct. 18, 2006, Jim Polous, 42, had just finished eating lunch. He and his 25-year-old survey partner, Brian Vander Veen, were shooting grades on an exit ramp near Chicago’s busy Dan Ryan Expressway. It was like any other day.

But their shift soon turned into a nightmare. About 150 ft away, their pickup truck was parked on the shoulder near a tripod-mounted “total station,” a sophisticated and expensive measurement tool worth about $35,000. After taking several readings, Polous noticed that his handheld tool had lost track of the total station. He looked up, and the gear was gone.

Norm/Cheryl Vander Veen
Thieves put Vander Veen in the hospital. Despite police efforts, they still remain at large. photo right Courtesy of Norm and Cheryl Vander Veen

In what took less than 15 seconds, three men had pulled off the highway in a teal-colored car, jumped out, grabbed the tripod, got back in the vehicle and zoomed up the exit ramp. Before Polous realized what was happening, Vander Veen, who was working the other side of the shoulder, jumped a chain-link fence and sprinted to the pavement. “Before I could even turn my head, it was over with,” Polous says.

Tudor Hampton/ENR
Thieves hit Vander Veen as he was surveying this Dan Ryan exit ramp in Chicago.

The driver smacked into Vander Veen at about 35 mph, catapulting him 10 ft into the air, and fled the scene. When the paramedics arrived, the young surveyor was in critical condition. He was unconscious, bleeding, with a broken leg, ribs, neck and back. He had compound fractures, collapsed lungs, and a concussion from a traumatic brain injury. The accident put him in a coma for 49 days. The life of the young man from rural Delavan, Wis., would never be the same.

“It was just touch and go for a long time,” says O’Holleran, the surveyors’ employer. “It’s always been dangerous working out in roadway construction, and to have a new criminal element added to that danger is just something as an industry we don’t need.”

Vander Veen survived, but he cannot remember what happened. He is in physical therapy in Omaha, Neb., where his parents, Norm and Cheryl, visit him. “It’s a miracle he’s alive,” says Cheryl, a registered nurse. “Brian has had to learn to swallow, to eat, to walk and talk all over again.” She says her son has just started to venture out of a wheelchair.

Witnesses observed the robbery, as did a nearby gas station security camera, which yielded a partial description of the license plate. Then, the leads went cold. In February, local law enforcement blanketed the area with flyers in hopes of stirring up more clues. Some more surfaced, but five months after the crime, the suspects still remain at large.

“This almost cost this young man his life,” says George McDade, chairman of Cook County Crime Stoppers, which operates a local tip hotline. “We’ve seen theft of equipment, but not like this. This is a new twist.”

Tudor Hampton/ENR
Polous, party chief, saw his survey partner run down by thieves. "I was pretty shaken up for a long time,” he says.

‘Snatch and Grab’

Items like skid-steer loaders, which are easily put on a small trailer, are still the hottest targets for jobsite crime, according to security companies. But surveying gear, which can cost as much as a small loader, is becoming a prime target. It is far easier to steal than a loader, and willing buyers are everywhere. “It think it’s a speciality. [Thieves] knew what they were taking,” says McDade.  Survey gear is an ideal “snatch and grab” for those who understand its value, crime experts say.

The art of surveying already brings its own skills and hazards. The work is physically demanding and full of danger. Field workers often find themselves spending hours perched on the side of a road or nestled inside a work zone, with heavy vehicles moving around them on all sides. Alertness is key to this specialized trade.

Also crucial are the instruments needed to plot construction, measure the landscape and check grades. As labor becomes more expensive and construction more complex, survey instruments are increasingly designed with electronic controls that drive up their cost—and likewise their crime value. They also are  getting easier to use, increasing the pool of potential buyers. Survey tools have become a hot item.

Before last October, surveyors already had lost half a dozen tools, including two $35,000 total stations and a $50,000 GPS survey set along the Dan Ryan during its ongoing, $975-million reconstruction. The heightened awareness of the gear’s value is “exposing our staff to what could turn into a criminal situation,” O’Holleran says.

Not every surveyor has experienced theft, but many have, and they agree that it is fast becoming a costly and dangerous nuisance. Florida ranks among the top-three hottest states for construction equipment theft. In just the last five years, theft of survey equipment there has spiked dramatically.

No one knows for sure how much it costs the local industry because not every case is reported. But of the 150 cases recorded by the Tallahassee-based Florida Surveying and Mapping Society, thieves have ripped off more than $1.3 million of survey instruments at an average cost of $12,400 per incident. Local firms say they have no choice but to file a claim with their insurer, or, if their deductible is too high, they simply go out and buy a replacement.

The associated violence also costs firms in people, health care and headaches. Some of the crimes in Florida are just as shocking as Chicago. Robbers have held up surveyors at gunpoint; strong-armed them at gas stations while they were filling up their trucks; pushed workers down steep embankments and played tug-o-war with tripods in open daylight. “We had a person shot in the shoulder in Miami,” says Marilyn Evers, FSMS’s executive director.

People are starting to realize “that there is a valuable piece of equipment there,” adds Greg Prather, vice president of Bartow, Fla.-based Pickett & Associates Inc. Last November, he lost a $12,000 total station after a thief used a crowbar to break into the cargo box on top of a pickup truck. “My guys saw it happen,” he says. “They felt like they were being watched.” A chase ensued, with police dogs and helicopters, but in the end, the thief got away.

Crime became so bad in Florida that Evers in 2005 launched a grassroots campaign to educate FSMS members and the local police. “We set up a database of stolen equipment, and we provided all of that information to the law enforcement agencies,” she says. The crime “has not totally stopped, but it has improved,” she adds.

FSMS also brought the problem to surveyors’ attention in other states. “We’re not getting as many reports as we did before,” says Curt Sumner, who leads...

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