Bulk Cell Phones Purchased, Propane Tanks Stolen in Missouri-Truth!
Summary of eRumor:
A group of men bought more than 60 pre-paid cell phones at Walmart stores in Missouri, and dozens of propane tanks were stolen from nearby convenience stations, sparking fear of imminent terrorist attacks among online communities.
Police in Missouri have confirmed that more than 100 pre-paid cell phones were purchased and dozens of propane tanks were stolen near Kansas City, Missouri, in early December 2015.
Local police departments in Missouri said that they alerted the FBI about the bulk pre-paid cell phone purchases and propane tank thefts as a precautionary measure, but they didn’t warn of any imminent threats of terrorist activity. Still, in the wake of terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and California, those reports have sparked fear among online commentators. Here’s what we know:
Police were called to a Walmart in Lebanon, Missouri, on December 5, 2015, for a report of suspicious activity. According to an incident report released by the Lebanon Police Department, an officer spoke with two male subjects about “electronics purchasing” and determined that no crime had been commitment:
On Saturday December 5, 2015 at approximately 0352 hours I was dispatched to 1800 S. Jefferson in reference to suspicious activity regarding electronics purchasing. Upon my arrival, I made contact with two male subjects that were pointed out by store employees. Upon speaking the two males, it was determined that there was no further reason to detain the subjects and they were allowed to leave.
Police in Ava, Missouri, also responded to a report of suspicious cell phone purchases at a Walmart store on December 5. Ava police said that they’d learned the same man who purchased 60 pre-paid cell phones at the Walmart in Lebanon had purchased “a large amount” of cell phones at the store in Ava, according to a news release.
There were similar reports of bulk cell phone purchases at stores in nearby Columbia, Jefferson City and Macon around the same time. Thirty-two cell phones were purchased at the Walmart in Macon, and an unspecified number of phones were purchased in Columbia. Then, on December 10, reports surfaced that 48 pre-paid cell phones had been purchased in Jackson and 10 had been purchased in Cape Girardeau, local CBS affiliate KFVS 12 reports:
Cape Girardeau Police Chief Wes Blair says up to 10 pre-paid cell phones were purchased the same day at the Cape Girardeau Walmart.
Both the Jackson and Cape Girardeau police departments turned over their investigations to the FBI.
A witness who does not want to be identified says that she and a family member saw a man with several pre-paid cell phones in his shopping cart Friday at the Cape Girardeau Walmart on William Street. She thought it was suspicious and wondered if maybe he was going to re-sell them.
Another witness says she saw the victim at the cash register purchasing the phones in pairs. She says she thought it was suspicious, but was told by the cashier that the person was price-matching and getting a deal.
“Historically there have been large purchases of pre-paid cell phones throughout the United States that are shipped overseas just because there is a market for that,” Cape Girardeau Police Chief Wes Blair said. “So that’s what the FBI is for to vet all of that out and determine it, which is why we’ve taken everything we learned so far and forwarded it to them.”
Later that night, the woman said that same family member went to the Jackson Walmart and saw the same man with another individual buying several pre-paid phones.
“They do a lot for resale on those phone too, but we don’t want to take any chances,” Jackson Police Chief James Humphreys said.
A total of five police departments contacted the FBI about the cell phone purchases. Still, the departments said that no crimes had occurred and there was no reason to detain the men who bought the phones. AN FBI spokesperson in Missouri said it’s not uncommon to receive these types of reports from local law enforcement agencies and confirmed pending investigations in three of the five reports:
An FBI spokeswoman in Kansas City, Missouri, Bridget Patton, said Thursday it is not uncommon for local law enforcement to contact that federal agency if they deem something suspicious. Patton would not say if the FBI is formally investigating.
Prepaid cellphones, popular among international travelers and consumers with poor credit, also are commonly used by drug dealers and gang members because they don’t require personal data be given to the seller or service provider, masking the user’s identity. Such phones also have been linked to suspected terror activity including by a man accused of plotting to bomb Times Square in 2010 and using a prepaid phone to communicate with co-conspirators in Pakistan.
Police reports and interviews with investigators where the transactions took place did not disclose demographics about the buyers.
Then, reports of dozens of stolen propane tanks in the same area of Missouri sparked even more panic about possible terrorist activity. A local Fox News affiliate in Kansas City reported that 18-20 propane tanks had been stolen from outside cages of gas stations in Lee’s Summit in November. Two weeks later, 28 propane tanks were stolen from a CVS in Independence, Missouri. But a retired FBI agent said it was unlikely that terrorists would steal propane tanks to make a bomb:
Retired FBI agent Michael Tabman says it is up to law enforcement to investigate and try to connect the dots.
“Certainly, we hear something about gas being stolen we worry about a potential bomb. The good news is this is probably not part of terrorist planning for a number of reasons,” Tabman told FOX 4’s Shannon O’Brien.
“One is they wouldn’t steal these items because they know that would attract law enforcement’s attention. Also this would not be a tool of choice,” he continued.
The FBI would not comment on the cell phone purchases or propane thefts, only saying that they encourage the public: If you see something, say something.
In conclusion, we can confirm that the FBI is investigating bulk pre-paid cell phone purchases at Walmart stores in Missouri. We can also confirm that dozens of propane tanks have been stolen from the outside cages of stores in the same area of Missouri. However, there’s currently nothing linking those two things together, or that these events signal an elevated risk for terrorist activity. Contrary to some online reports, Missouri has not been placed on “high alert,” and there haven’t been any national security advisories issued about this.
Check back for updates.