BILLINGS — A theft ring based on the Billings South Side was busted this week by law enforcement.
The group of thieves had been working to steal whatever was available across Billings, and the criminal enterprise reached across several Montana counties.
Last Tuesday, Shanna Swigert of East Helena was getting some things ready for a camping trip her family had planned for the weekend.
While packing up supplies, she noticed that her family's side-by-side and trailer were not in their driveway. She says she called her husband, and after realizing neither of them had moved it, reported it as stolen to local police.
Swigert then took to Facebook to ask her friends to keep an eye out for her easily-recognizable side-by-side.
"You know (it's) very recognizable," Swigert says. "The guy we got it from had a custom paint job on the doors."
Swigert explains that within an hour, her post had gotten dozens of shares. She says a man from Martinsdale reached out to her stating he had seen her side-by-side on his security camera, and that the man driving it had stolen gas from him.
“You know there were a lot of emotions involved with that. There was anger, I was scared, and I felt like it was an invasion of my home and my property that I worked so hard for," Swigert said.
She says it was even more hurtful because her family really enjoys using the side-by-side to spend time outside together.
Over the next week, Swigert would see her side-by-side being posted all over Facebook caught on security cameras. The thief was using it to continue to steal from others.
On Wednesday, Swigert was shocked when the Lewis and Clark Sheriff's Office informed her that they had found her side-by-side in Billings.
Unfortunately, Swigert and her family were not the only ones affected by these thieves.
On Wednesday morning, a Billings contractor arrived to his work site to find his trailer missing. After making a few phone calls, he concluded it must have been stolen.
The man wanted to remain anonymous for his own safety as the investigation is ongoing.
After making a report to the police, the man says he received a frantic phone call from one of his employees.
He had found the trailer, but it was being towed by two men in a truck.
The man instructed his employee to follow the truck and left the job site to track them down.
They ended up following the men back to a property on Sugar Avenue, directly across from Billings School District 2's bus barn. A Yellowstone County deputy just happened to be driving down the road, so the contractor waived him down.
The contractor says that once the men saw the officer, they took off. One arrest was made, but one of the suspects managed to elude law enforcement, according to Yellowstone County's Sheriff Mike Linder.
On the property, the contractor discovered his trailer contained three stolen lawnmowers. He explains he felt sick seeing all of the stolen items these thieves had, and that he feels extremely violated by what he had to go through.
The property was full of stolen items, ranging from trailers to trucks to ATV's, according to Billings Police Department Lt. Matt Lennick.
While the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office assisted in the initial arrest and investigation, the case is now being handled by the Billings Police Department, according to Linder.
Linder also stated that one ATV recovered had been reported stolen in 2017.
The Billings Police Department is working to reunite the items with their rightful owners.
While this story has a happy ending for many of its victims, the contractor believes this experience has left him with emotional damage.
He explains that these thefts have a ripple effect on small business owners like himself.
"When we get our stuff stolen, we cannot produce the services that the community needs. Then the heat comes down on us to provide that service, but we have to replace the equipment," he said.
The contractor believes the community needs to band together and speak up when they notice things out of the ordinary.
“These guys are a menace to society. They are creating turmoil through our communities, and how do we stop it? We can’t unless we join together and stay strong enough knowing that we’re more powerful as a group than they are," he says. "If people see something that doesn’t seem right, report it. The worst that will happen is it's a false alarm."
He thanks law enforcement for their timely response and the importance they placed on the case, but is still shaken up by what he had to go through.
Swigert also believes the trauma from the whole ordeal may never leave her.
“Before when cars would drive by, I wouldn’t think anything of it. But now when a car drives by, especially at night, it’s like a little bit of anxiety," Swigert said. "I have to sit and wait to see if they finish driving by, or if they’re going to stop in my driveway."
Swigert also says that she will now be extra cautious when it comes to protecting her items. She believes everyone with toys like her ATV should purchase an Apple AirTag, which can track the item on other Apple products, like iPhones and MacBook computers.
Swigert explains the AirTags can be placed in a discreet location so they aren't easily spotted, and the battery lasts around six months.
"I just take for granted that it’s going to be there. We’ve lived here for 15 years and we’ve never had anything disturbed," Swigert says. "I felt mostly anger in the beginning and just kind of wondering, 'Why? Why us?' But I don’t think we’ll ever know."