LOUISVILLE - A former refrigerant distributor and at least a dozen ex-employees of contracting companies are about to learn their fate after having been caught illegally selling and obtaining a variety of refrigerants.

In mid-August, Roger Whitaker pleaded guilty in Kentucky's Jefferson Circuit Court to criminal syndication and dozens of counts of theft for leading what police said was a black market ring that distributed more than 10 tons of stolen refrigerants. He will be sentenced in late October, after having already agreed to a 10-year prison sentence without parole, according to the Aug. 20 online edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Reports said Whitaker had been an employee of a Louisville packaging site for a short time in the mid-80s. He then became the ringleader of three packaging company employees to steal the material. They primarily stole one-ton refrigerant cylinders of recovered refrigerants, which were then taken to a farm and the contents transferred to smaller containers, according to reports.

As part of his plea, Whitaker agreed to testify against about a dozen men including those who obtained the refrigerant and who worked for a number of contracting companies, which included companies involved in automotive air conditioning, chillers, and supermarket equipment. The men were among those arrested when the ring was first broken up some four years ago.

Their trials are expected to take place over the next couple of months.

The investigation involved the Jefferson County Police, Commonwealth of Kentucky Attorney's Office, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and FBI.

Those within the HVACR industry said the incident points to the dangers of purchasing refrigerants unless through reputable and established sources.

"Contractors purchasing refrigerant should be wary about the source if the price seems too good to be true," said Ed Dooley, vice president of communications and education for the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI).

One other aspect of the questionable refrigerant issues concerns purity. "Government enforcement agencies tell us that seized refrigerant that has been illegally imported is often contaminated," Dooley said.

Publication date: 09/06/2004