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Thefts Rise With Copper Prices

States Boost Efforts To Catch Crooks

Oregon Caves National Monument supervisor Craig Ackerman shows copper cable similar to that stolen from the park.
Oregon Caves National Monument supervisor Craig Ackerman shows copper cable similar to that stolen from the park. (By Jeff Barnard -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008; Page A02

CHICAGO, May 8 -- Dave Fusselman figures he has seen a lot of different items come through his family's third-generation scrap metal business in Moberly, Mo. But an attempted sale last fall broke new ground.

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During separate trips, two men tried to sell Fusselman increasingly large amounts of small, copper caps they said came from a derailed train's cargo. On the third try, Fusselman got suspicious and eventually called police.

The copper turned out to be bullet casings from a munitions factory where the two men worked -- enough for 1.5 million rounds of ammunition. One of the men now faces a sentence as severe as 245 years in prison for military-related theft during wartime.

Such incidents have become increasingly common now that the metal is selling at record high prices, driven by worldwide booms in electronics and construction. Thieves from the professional to the bumbling are scaling cellphone towers, ripping off baseball field lights, looting construction sites, tearing out potentially lethal live wires, removing huge spools from utility company grounds, hauling off massive sculptures in the middle of the night and even stealing gravestone plaques.

In response, lawmakers and authorities are taking steps to catch more thieves and are toughening the punishment for those who are convicted.

Copper, which sells for between $3 and $4 a pound, sold for about 83 cents a pound in 2000, said Bob Garino, director of commodities for the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a trade group.

DTE Energy in southeast Michigan said that in the past 18 months, there have been far more copper thefts than in years past, with 400 thefts of utility property last year. DTE security chief Michael Lynch said thieves are even snatching the live wires that stretch between poles, which is likely to result in electrocution.

"Individuals are willing to risk their life for whatever they can sell at a scrap yard," he said.

In Colorado Springs, at least two ballparks and an in-line skating rink lost electric wiring from their lights; and sprinkler caps worth as much as $1,200 a piece were swiped. In Hot Springs, Ark., 2,000 customers, a hospital, a mall and a Wal-Mart lost power when copper thieves hit an electric substation on April 27. During a two-week period in April, there were six copper thefts in churches around Birmingham, Ala. The renovation of a 96-year-old church was halted by flooding after basement water pipes were ripped out for their copper content.

Three large, bronze outdoor sculptures have been stolen in the past year and a half in Brea, Calif., each one valued at tens of thousands of dollars. Bronze is an alloy containing about two-thirds copper. Brea art specialist Trinitee Manuel said city officials have contacted owners of bronze sculptures and advised them to step up security. City officials are asking the public to call the police if they see anyone acting suspicious near a sculpture.

"Even if you think it's just a maintenance man, even if you think you're being silly, go ahead and call," Manuel said.

Across the District, thieves have been targeting construction sites and homes, making off with copper pipes, wiring and spouts. Such thefts have been happening for years, but the incidents have picked up in recent months.

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