They come during the night — and they’re organized.
It was in mid-summer when Jefferson Lakeside Country Club became one of their first victims.
Tom Barry showed up for work one Monday morning in July at Jefferson Lakeside, just as he always does.
The club and its golf course are tucked back off a winding, tree-lined street in Henrico County, just up the road from the botanical gardens.
Barry remembers leaving the course the night before, around 8:30 p.m. He locked up as he always does, including the small cinder block building where the club’s 36 golf carts are stored, about 15 yards from the clubhouse. Everything was secure.
“I get in the next morning, and it doesn’t look right,” said Barry, the club’s head pro.
He noticed the lock on the cart storage building was missing but shrugged it off, thinking the superintendent must have come in early and needed a cart.
He inspected further.
“All of sudden, I counted the carts and we’re six short,” Barry said.
The club’s stable of 36 carts was down to 30, and it hit him — they had been stolen.
“They took the six carts and took the lock with them,” Barry said. “It was kind of shocking.”
Golf carts get stolen more than one would think. But it’s usually just kids looking for a late night thrill who then dump them in the woods or in a course’s water hazard.
The occurrence at Jefferson Lakeside was different. And what happened there was far from isolated.
It happened again about a month later, 60 miles west in Louisa County at Shenandoah Crossing Golf Course. Then again in October, 40 miles south at Jordan Point Golf Club in Hopewell. And the list goes on.
Golf carts have been mysteriously disappearing, in bulk, across Central Virginia.
Since July, dozens of golf carts from area courses, country clubs and even from golf cart dealers, have gone missing in similar fashion: locks cut under the cover of darkness, large numbers of carts taken quickly and all at once.
In addition to the half dozen from Jefferson Lakeside, 10 were stolen from Jordan Point. Almost 30 were apparently stolen from the now shuttered Shenandoah Crossing. Four went missing from Peebles Golf Cars in Glen Allen, and five from Richmond Golf Cars in Powhatan.
And these instances appear not to be a coincidence.
Whoever is stealing these carts has a particular penchant for gas-powered carts. Every single cart stolen in this recent rash of thefts was a gas-powered cart.
“It’s an unusual case,” said Detective Chad Eilert of the Prince George County Police Department. He’s been investigating the Jordan Point case and has heard of the other thefts in the area.
“It’s obviously a ring. All they want is gas-powered carts. They know where the carts are and how to take a bunch out at one time. If it was kids, they would have crashed them in the woods or put them in the pond. Somebody has a need for these golf carts,” Eilert said.
There’s a reason, according to those in the industry, that gas-powered carts are being targeted.
“It’s basic economics,” said Bert Zajac III, controller for Peebles Golf Cars. “It’s supply and demand.”
The demand is derived from the healthy after-market for the carts fueled by individuals who like to buy them for personal use. They’re used at people’s river or beach houses, at campgrounds and at those “active living” residential developments for seniors.
And there are plenty of tricked-out golf carts for sale on Craigslist, complete with custom trim, big tires, spoilers and rims.
As for the supply, many say there is a shortage, which drives up the price a cart can fetch on the open market. Very few courses use them these days. Most courses, at least around Richmond and Central Virginia, use electric carts.
“There’s high demand, and there is no supply of gas cars,” Zajac said.
A new gas-powered cart can retail for more than $5,000. On the used market, they can fetch between $1,500 and $2,000 apiece.
Why people prefer gas-powered carts over electric carts is simple: You don’t have to charge them. The chargers run about $500 each.
Stealing the carts also doesn’t appear to be rocket science.
Most golf courses don’t have elaborate security systems. Country clubs, after all, are typically tranquil places in secluded locations.
Not to mention that carts of the same brand often use the same keys for the ignition, and there are only a few main brands that most courses use: E-Z-Go, Club Car and Yamaha.
The trickiest part seems to be getting large numbers out in one fell swoop.
“You have to be organized and have equipment to move this amount of golf cars,” Zajac said.
That leads some to believe that there’s someone from the industry in the area involved.
“You have to have a pretty good piece of equipment and know where you’re going,” said Barry of Jefferson Lakeside. “I was thinking of a disgruntled employee.”
Hot on the trail
The plot thickened in late October, just a few days after 10 brand-new gas-powered carts were stolen from Jordan Point.
The scenic course sits on the banks of the James River in Hopewell and never had a reason to lock its carts.
Then Rick Bealert, the head pro and manager of the course, got a peculiar phone call from someone in the industry asking if the club had any of its carts stolen recently.
“A guy called me and said ‘I think I know where your carts are.’”
The caller told Bealert there was someone trying to sell 10 new blue gas carts with the name “Jordan Point Golf Club” on the front.
“They are good at stealing them but pretty poor at selling them,” Bealert said.
Whoever stole them was making their rounds through the industry, trying to unload them. The tight-knit industry that it is, word kept getting back to Bealert.
Adding to his frustration, he eventually received an emailed photograph of 10 blue carts that someone was trying to sell.
“They were my blue carts and they were sitting in some guy’s back yard,” he said.
The Prince George Police Department eventually followed a trail that led to a string of text messages going around with information about these 10 carts for sale.
They tracked the messages up to Culpepper and eventually to a golf expo in Fredericksburg. Prince George police began working with Culpepper and Fredericksburg, Eilert said.
“It seemed like everybody was trying to sell these for somebody,” Eilert said.
Culpepper issued some search warrants and recovered one cart, Eilert said. But it wasn’t from Jordan Point.
“It ended up being a dead end,” Eilert said.
There are a few bits of evidence that have been left in the wake of the alleged thefts. Now Bealert, Barry and the others are just waiting for various police departments to try to connect dots and see if the pieces fit.
Tire tracks were left on the first tee at Jefferson Lakeside when the perpetrators apparently had to turn their rig around. And there’s the photo and text messages from Jordan Point’s carts.
The most blatant clue is believed to have been left behind after 29 carts were taken from Shenandoah Crossing.
Located in a gated resort community in Gordonsville, between Charlottesville and Richmond, the hilly course had 60 carts, all gas-powered to better handle the terrain.
That was before the course went out of business — apparently another golf course that fell victim to the economic downturn. It was shut down by its owners, including Richmond developer Hank Wilton.
Half of its carts were repossessed by Peebles, Wilton said. It was during the process of shuttering the course that the other half went missing.
“We thought the company we were going to give them back to picked them up. But that was not the case,” Wilton said.
“They called us and said ‘Where are the carts?’” Wilton recalled. “We said ‘We just assumed you took them.’”
That’s apparently what the guards at the gate of the Shenandoah Crossing community thought as well.
Wilton said the guards recalled a big truck hauling the carts out.
He said there’s a chance Louisa County police can recover a video from the guardhouse or perhaps one of the guards made a log entry of the truck’s license plate. The detective on the case did not return a call by press time.
The mystery endures
For now, the search for the missing carts continues.
All the victims luckily had insurance and were able to pay the deductible to have the carts replaced. But Bealert, Zajac, Barry and the others are frustrated with the lack of progress on the case.
Zajac said he has a hunch as to why it’s difficult to track down the missing carts.
“If somebody breaks into your office and steals computers, they are going to go pawn them,” Zajac said. “You can’t pawn golf carts. They go out to the wild world of Craigslist.”
In a rare a victory in the case, one of Jefferson Lakeside’s carts turned up more than 100 miles away in Amherst, Va., with a new paint job and all but one of its serial numbers removed.
That discovery gives Debbie Moss-Heese, owner of Richmond Golf Cars off Route 60 in Powhatan, at least some hope.
“I don’t know where they’re going. But they’re going somewhere,” she said. “I feel personally, it has to all be connected. I believe you find one, you find them all.”