Electronic roadside signs meant to provide important traffic or road hazard updates to motorists have been repeatedly knocked out of commission throughout Westchester by a bandit who broke into the signs to steal their valuable batteries, according to Westchester County Police.
An investigation of the thefts has led to the arrest of Angel G. Velez, 26, of Baychester Avenue in the Bronx on charges that he stole nearly 300 batteries — worth $60,000 — and made at least $20,000 by selling the batteries for scrap at recycling centers in the area.
The Westchester County Police investigation has also led to a probe of Velez by State Police and New York City Police into similar thefts that have been plaguing "variable message signs" throughout the Westchester, Rockland, Orange and Bronx region.
“Variable Message Signs are placed along roadways to warn truckers about low bridges and warn motorists about traffic delays or safety hazards that they will encounter along their route," Westchester County Public Safety Commissioner George N. Longworth said. "These battery thefts knocked many Variable Message Signs out of service, preventing messages from being displayed and posing a threat to the safety of the motoring public.”
Police said that numerous signs were damaged as locks were broken on battery compartments. Additionally, the scale of the thefts was not immediately known to police because the thefts took place on different roads, involving numerous public agencies and public contractors working on the roads and involved signs owned by Westchester County, New York State and contractors.
The thefts took place along the Hutchinson River Parkway, Bronx River Parkway, Saw Mill River Parkway, Cross County Parkway, New York State Thruway and local roads as well as from a state DOT maintenance yard. The batteries weigh between 55 and 96 pounds each and cost about $200 each when purchased new.
The arrest of Velez resulted from an investigation launched by Westchester County Det. Dan Carfi of the General Investigations Unit several months ago following a complaint filed by a private contractor.
Carfi discovered that the "deep-cycle" batteries used for the electronic roadside signs were being taken from equipment throughout Westchester. Carfi found a pattern that was not immediately visible to law enforcement because of the scale and scope of the thefts.
Police said the batteries were sold for scrap at different recycling centers in the region. Staff at recycling centers cooperated in the investigation, according to police.
Valez was arrested and taken to Westchester County Police headquarters on Tuesday and was being held for arraignment in several courts today in Westchester, including Yonkers, New Rochelle, Greenburgh and Mount Vernon on charges of third-degree grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property and criminal mischief.