05/13/11 — Copper hunting: Vacant houses are one of first places thieves strike

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Copper hunting: Vacant houses are one of first places thieves strike

By Gary Popp
Published in News on May 13, 2011 1:46 PM

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Goldsboro Police Sgt. Dwayne Dean shows where thieves have dismantled air conditioner units to steal the copper tubing. The high price of metal has increased the number of incidents of copper thefts.

As the prices of precious metals have risen, so, too, have the frequency of metal thefts.

In the past four months alone, Goldsboro police have received more than 80 reports of metal thefts.

Most involved thieves stripping copper and aluminum components from air conditioning units.

And the thieves usually do much more damage to a home or business than the metal is actually worth.

For example, a May 10 police report shows $4,100 in damages to an HVAC unit and hot water heater where $300 of copper tubing was stolen from a home on South Madison Avenue. Another shows $5,000 in damages to an air conditioner where $50 of copper pipe was stolen from a home on West Elm Street. In another case, damages were estimated to be $4,800 when $50 worth of copper tubing was ripped out of an air conditioner at a home on Bunche Drive.

Homeowners are not the only ones feeling the pain. Businesses large and small have been victimized, as well as a number of churches, such as Jordan's Chapel Church in Mount Olive and United Church Ministries, and schools, such as Wayne Middle Academy.

Businesses hit by metal thieves range from small stores to utility providers such as Progress Energy and Tri-County Electric.

Progress Energy substations in Mount Olive, Dudley and Fremont were all hit on different days in January. And even AT&T, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless have filed reports of copper thefts.

Metal thefts pose a problem for lawmen because it is difficult to trace the origin of the metal that is found in someone's possession or has been turned into a salvage yard.

Goldsboro Police Sgt. Dwayne Dean is acutely aware of the difficulties in tracking metal thieves.

"It is hard for us to say that this piece of copper came from which particular A/C unit because there are no serial numbers on copper lines or copper wire, so it is not readily identifiable," he said. "It's frustrating to us that we are not able to make more arrests, but it is not like (copper) is a vehicle that has a license plate and a VIN number and we can say, 'Yeah, this it is definitely it.' Copper is copper."

Yet the police have made some strides. Within the last three weeks, there have been five people charged with crimes involving copper thefts, Dean said.

Dean said 'For Rent' and 'For Sale' signs help criminals identify a house as a prospective target.

He added that thieves might watch a house over an extended period of time to determine the best time to strike. The less activity they see at the home or business, the more of a target that location becomes.

"I suggest to these homeowners that have rental properties that you need to check it constantly. It needs to be a daily thing or maybe every couple of days," Dean said. "If (criminals) are watching it, and they see you coming and going then they may think, 'I am scared of this one.' "

He said many of the individuals in Goldsboro stealing metals are repeat offenders.

"It is the same ones over and over and over and over, just like it is in other crimes. You have these criminals, this is what they do," Dean said.

Dean emphasized that there are many people who make a legitimate income by selling metal and that lawmen are aware that not every metal sale to a scrap yard is suspicious.

"Those are not the people we are going after," Dean said. "It is the people using the cover of darkness, going underneath a house going cut, cut, cut, and they have a bag and even before the scrap yards open up they are waiting to go and make that sale. And they go cut, cut, cut some more."

Dean said there are criminals who make small sales at scrap yards two or three times a day, and that those individuals are often arriving at the scrap yards on foot or on a bicycle.

"It seems like the majority of these people who are actually doing those (thefts) are either homeless, don't have a job and this is what they do to support their daily activities and survive," Dean said.

Goldsboro police Chief Jeff Stewart said metal theft is not new or unique to Goldsboro or Wayne County.

"It really stared when China started buying all the metals probably five or six years ago," Stewart said. "That's when it really started."

Stewart and Dean attributed the recent arrests partly to the willingness of citizens to contact police when they have seen out of the normal activity in their communities.