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East Chicago police searching for suspect who stole tanks of nitrous oxide from St. Catherine's Hospital

East Chicago police are seeking the public’s assistance in identifying this man from surveillance footage who is suspected of theft from St. Catherine Hospital. 

A Chicago man pretending to work for a medical supply company stole several tanks of nitrous oxide last month from St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, according to criminal charges filed Tuesday.

Enrique Ochoa is charged in Lake Criminal Court with theft, unlawful possession of a legend drug and misdemeanor criminal trespassing on allegations he stole four tanks of nitrous oxide Nov. 5 from St. Catherine's Hospital, 4321 Fir St.

Ochoa committed similar thefts in 2014 in Illinois, according to police. The 37-year-old defendant was wanted by authorities Wednesday. His surety bond is $25,000.

Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, is an anesthetic regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

A St. Catherine Hospital employee told police he was working in the hospital's boiler room Nov. 5 when the phone rang, according to court records. The caller ID said it was Airgas, a company that supplies medical-grade gases.

The caller told the employee the hospital's eight bottles of nitrous oxide were recalled due to an issue with the bottle relieve stems. The caller said he would send an employee to check on the hospital's supply.

The purported Airgas employee arrived that afternoon and said all eight bottles needed to be replaced. He loaded four bottles onto a pickup truck and said he would return Nov. 8 to replace the others, but never did.

St. Catherine Hospital's security director reported the thefts Nov. 13 to East Chicago police. On Nov. 16, the department released surveillance photos of the suspect to media organizations. A security director for Advocate Aurora Health in Illinois contacted East Chicago police Nov. 25 and identified the suspect as Ochoa.

The Illinois security director said Ochoa was arrested in 2014 for stealing nitrous oxide from a Chicago hospital. He was also suspected in an attempted gas theft from Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen, Illinois, the security director said.

Ochoa was charged in 2014 with stealing nitrous oxide from hospitals in Downers Grove, Illinois, and Chicago, according to Bill Budds, public information officer for Downers Grove Police Department.

Budds said Ochoa stole 11 cylinders of the gas July 25, 2014, from Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. Ochoa claimed to be an employee of a medical supplier company to gain access to the hospital, Budds said.

“Obviously it's his go-to scheme to get some cash,” Budds said “He talks himself into places.”

He said Ochoa pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and was sentenced to one year of probation.

Ochoa was accused in a similar theft in August 2014 from Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, according to Budds.

A public information officer for Chicago police said Ochoa was charged with felony theft in that case.

Budds said he was not certain why Ochoa was stealing nitrous oxide – Ochoa would not talk with Downers Grove police – but he suspected the defendant was selling the supplies.

“Whenever there is a spike in these cases, we figure there is a fence,” he said.

Ochoa is not the only person accused of stealing nitrous oxide from hospitals.

In 2014, two other men, Alejandro S. Cruz Jr., 28, and Brian S. Enriquez, 25, were charged with stealing gas canisters from Advocate Condell Hospital in Libertyville, according to the Chicago Tribune. In that case, the men claimed they were Praxair gas employees doing maintenance on the tanks.

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Lake County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Steve covers Lake County courts and social justice issues for The Times. The UW-Milwaukee graduate joined The Times in 2016 after reporting on criminal justice in New Mexico and Wisconsin.