None of the thefts were connected to a specific plot, but had unusual circumstances above the average stolen vehicle, authorities said.
One of the vans, a white Econoline, was stolen from Liberty Storage, a self-storage facility in Jersey City, N.J. on Aug. 21 and had Oklahoma plates, police said. Thieves cut the phone lines, alarms and took with them surveillance video, in what could be an extensive effort to cover their tracks in a way that seemed different from the average grand larceny.
The other two, dark green Chevy vans, were stolen Sept. 1 and Sept. 2 from Tully Construction, Co. Contractors, which has been involved in recovery work at the site and is currently doing roadwork on West St. near 1 World Trade Center.
The first van was stolen at an entrance ramp to the Long Island Expressway in Queens at about 3 a.m. on Sept. 1. The assigned driver was out of the vehicle and it was stolen, possibly with the keys in it, police said. The next night, at about 9:30 p.m., the stolen van was driven to a storage area used by Tully in Queens. At least three people are believed to have broken into lockers at the site, making off with roughly $70,000 worth of tools and stealing a second van from the location, police said.
"These may be nothing more than industry-savvy thieves with an appetite for expensive construction tools but they're receiving greater scrutiny in order to eliminate the possibility of something more sinister," said Paul Browne, the department's chief spokesman.
The two green vans had a red stripe on the body and a yellow turret light. No arrests have been made, and the vans have not been recovered.
Tully Construction was one of four contractors chosen to perform the clean up after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed. A message left with the company was not returned Saturday. A call to Liberty Storage was also not returned.
Police in New York have been on a heightened state of security since Thursday evening after federal officials said they were chasing a credible but unconfirmed al-Qaida threat to use a car bomb on bridges or tunnels in New York or Washington.
Patrols were extended. Police set up vehicle checkpoints at bridges and tunnels, were sweeping parking garages and towing more illegally parked cars. More radiation detection equipment was being used, as well as license plate readers.
Calls of suspicious packages and vehicles were up, but all were false alarms, police said. Detectives were talking to truck rental companies, fertilizer retailers and businesses that sell components that could be used to make bombs.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly on Saturday at Police Headquarters in lower Manhattan where they discussed the security measures. Kelly brought Napolitano through the department's newly-constructed Joint Operations Center.