Law enforcement battles constant metal thefts

Published 12:07 am Sunday, February 5, 2012

Illustration by Ben Hillyer — Everything from air conditioners to drain covers have been stolen in recent months, presumably for their scrap metal value.

By Rod Guajardo, Vershal Hogan & Lindsey Shelton

Private homes, construction sites, churches, businesses and even city streets can all be targets for metal thieves, and local officials say metal thievery is a constant community problem.

Thieves will strike anywhere, sometimes exerting more effort than what the metal will pay. Police reports say thieves will strip all of the wiring out of a construction site, steal an air-conditioning unit for the copper inside and even rifle through private sheds in hopes of finding an iron shard worth taking.

When thieves hit the Natchez Little Theatre in November, they stole two five-ton air-conditioning units, taking two newer models and leaving two old units behind. NLT Executive Director Layne Taylor said the thieves left tire tracks in the yard behind the theater building, evidence they had brazenly backed up to the units sometime during the night.

“They put a lot of work into this — an air unit only has about $50 worth of copper in it,” Taylor said. “These people were committing grand larceny for $50.”

But the $50 profit for the thieves translated to thousands of dollars worth of damage for NLT. Taylor said, luckily, the theater is insured.

“Other than having to make an insurance claim, it was probably $1,000 or $1,500 out of pocket,” Taylor said. “That was predominately for creating more security there in that residential neighborhood where we are located.”

Metal bandits are not above striking at society as a whole, taking on the taxpayers by stealing manhole covers, street grates and even water pipes.

“We had approximately $15,000 worth of electrical plugs, quick connections that connect the generators to our water wells, stolen,” Natchez City Engineer David Gardner said. “It has been stripped down, so they are ruined. I have to order more, and those things are very pricey.”

Likewise, for the generators to work now, the city will have to have an electrician come in and wire them directly to the connection, taking away the flexibility to move the generators from place to place.

Gardner said when thieves steal items such as water intake grates, the city has to pay for more than just a replacement grate. For example, a welder has to be hired to fabricate the grate, Gardner said.

But that’s not to say that the raw costs don’t hurt, either.

“Those grates are iron, and one of those grates can weigh 250 pounds, so that’s going to cost you $1 a pound,” he said.

And there are other costs to consider as well.

“When those grates are missing, that’s dangerous, a safety problem for kids playing in a neighborhood,” Gardner said.

Local law enforcement officials say metal theft is a problem they deal with on a regular basis in their respective communities.

Natchez Interim Police Chief Danny White said he believes there has been more metal theft in Natchez recently than in past years. He said any time copper prices increase, reports of metal theft also increase.

Current copper prices are approximately $4 per pound, according to metalprices.com, the metal industry site.

In Mississippi, state law requires metal and scrap recyclers to document the identification of the seller with paperwork and a photograph of the seller, metal recyclers must pay for purchases by electronic transfer or check and maintain records of transactions for two years. There is also a three-day-tag-and-hold policy on all materials.

In Louisiana, state law requires scrap recyclers to keep a record of all transactions for two years, including a copy of the seller’s driver’s license, and also includes a 10-day-tag-and-hold policy.

With Natchez Metals closing in 2008, the only place to sell copper or scrap metal in the Miss-Lou is Concordia Metal Inc. and Pac Man Auto Crushers in Vidalia.

Pac Man employees refused to comment for this article, but have said in the past that they require identification and photograph the seller before transactions are made.

White said several metal thefts were reported in the city before and during the holidays.

Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield said he believes metal theft in the county has decreased since his deputies have been checking vehicles carrying metal before the drivers cross the bridge, and he said anyone wishing to transport metal across the bridge into Louisiana is required to get a permit from his office.

Vidalia Police Chief Arthur Lewis and Ferriday Police Chief Johnny Evans said they see a few metal theft cases in their cities, but both said it has not been a tremendous problem.

Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell said copper theft and crime in general increases during tough economic times. He said it is difficult to track metal thieves because they melt or burn the metal or sell it out of town.

Maxwell said he has seen a few cases in Concordia Parish in which an employee of a metal supply store stole metal merchandise. He said business owners should ensure they have a strong sense of accountability for employees and keep track of all inventory.

Despite a good working relationship with area metal processing businesses such as Pac Man, Maxwell said police are rarely able to return stolen metal items to owners.

The best way for residents and business owners to protect their metal valuables, Maxwell said, is by enclosing air conditioning units in steel cages or keeping items out of sight.

“Thieves are going to steal what they can see and easily get to,” he said. “If they don’t know it’s there, they won’t touch it.”

White said although cages can protect air conditioning units, thieves can still cut the cages to steal the units. He said his officers are checking businesses after hours at night in an effort to deter metal thieves.

Mayfield said residents and business owners should also consider installing a surveillance camera on their property, such as game camera.

Mayfield said he has talked with members of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association about taking steps to make the buying of burned copper illegal.

“We’re definitely fighting it hard, and we’ve been talking about some things that would make it easier for us to catch (metal thieves),” he said.

All the local law enforcement officials say the best solution to curb metal theft for the time being is for residents to always be alert, get involved in a Neighborhood Watch program and report any suspicious activity to police.

“Neighborhood Watch programs are the strongest weapons we have in our arsenal,” Maxwell said. “People being aware and taking care of each other is what helps us best catch criminals.”