Storage lockers hold baubles and bodies and bevy of secrets INSIDE STORY

January 21, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Staff Writer

From the street, a lot of them resemble minimum-security prisons. A computerized main entrance opens to tidy grounds cordoned with barbed wire. But what might be mistaken for barracks-like cells are actually the padlocked keepers of Our Stuff.

Self-storage facilities -- all 25,000 nationwide, all 918 million square feet of space -- provide cheap homes for everything from live dogs to live grenades and from dead refrigerators to dead . . .

"We're storing dead people now," says Wanda Dawson, manager at Harford Mini-Storage.

An elderly tenant called to make sure her rent check was on time. And please make sure nothing happens to that urn inside her unit, the woman told Ms. Dawson. She assured the woman that her husband's ashes were safe.

Security and privacy are pledged by the self-storage business, a $2 billion-a-year, mom-and-pop industry. Only 3 percent are corporate enterprises. In the late 1970s, people discovered that mini-warehouses are cheap to build and profitable to run. Overhead is low, because typically only two people are needed to run the business. Very few employ security guards. The average 500-unit facility spends only 40 percent of revenue on expenses, industry watchers say.

"It's a very lucrative small business," says Troy Bix, publisher of Inside Self-Storage, the industry's leading magazine. He says construction and occupancy rates are up.

Depending on the locker's size, people pay from $25 to $195 a month for one of the storage areas. Renters typically sign a lease agreeing not to store flammables, hazardous waste, firearms, contraband, pets and people (live or dead). But self-storage facilities don't inventory the goods. And renters don't necessarily honor their lease conditions.

"We don't look into the grocery bag you bring in," says Robert L. Brown, executive director of the Cincinnati-based Self-Storage Association. "If you're going to do something criminal, you're not going to let a little piece of paper like a lease stop you."

Most people using these lockers are storing the garage-sale variety of innocent junk -- furniture or files they want out of their homes. But storage isn't the only use. Artists use lockers as makeshift lofts; garage bands practice there; homeless people make themselves at home; and couples couple in an occasional low-rent rendezvous. One unit at a Baltimore self-storage business was reportedly used as a "dressing room" for a prostitute.

For all their funk and function, self-storage lockers also have developed a slight criminal reputation.

Investigators found chemicals, possibly bomb ingredients, that were kept in a locker in Jersey City, N.J., rented by a suspect in the World Trade Center bombing. In 1992, Exxon Corp. executive Sidney Reso died in a storage unit where he had been held captive. The FBI exposed a lucrative prescription drug fraud run mainly from storage units in Long Island, N.Y., in 1992.

Bodies of evidence

A Seattle man and his stepfather, after buying the contents of a locker at auction, discovered the hatcheted bodies of the wife and two sons of a car salesman. In California last July, customers of a self-storage facility led police to a cement-filled freezer that held the body of a 29-year-old man, who had been strangled, then put on ice in mini-storage.

In the Baltimore area, self-storage managers don't recall finding any dead bodies. Drugs, fireworks and weirdness -- yes. Bodies, no.

Managers usually discover the contents of a locker after they evict tenants. If a tenant doesn't pay rent in 60 days, self-storage businesses are legally allowed to auction the contents to recoup the back rent. The auctions are advertised in the newspaper, and the tenants are notified by certified mail. Locks on the units are cut, and people bid for the contents as is.

Law enforcement officers from local police to the U.S. Secret Service also can liberate stored property. If they suspect illegal activity, officers get search warrants, cut the locks, find out who rented the space -- and sometimes make arrests.

"Historically, these lockers have been used to store all kinds of contraband -- from the off-loading of marijuana to the storing of kilos of cocaine," says Special Agent Frank Franco of the Drug Enforcement Agency's district office in Baltimore.

A big stash

In November 1992, an all-night raid turned up 800 pounds of marijuana in self-storage bins in Glen Burnie and Harford County -- the largest marijuana bust on record for those areas. Police say they found more than $320,000 in cash, too.

About five times a year in Maryland, DEA agents open lockers suspected of housing contraband, Mr. Franco says. Besides drugs and money, they find stolen merchandise and chemicals used for distilling illegal drugs. Some mini-warehouses have been turned into methamphetamine labs, Mr. Franco says.

Also, some drug dealers hide their cars in lockers. "It shows their wealth, so they stick it in there," Mr. Franco says. "They don't have it parked in front of their houses."

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