Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2014

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Copper good as gold for Silver State thieves

After dark, thieves sneak into a neighborhood and break the bottom off a streetlight post.

In a few minutes, the neighborhood will be darker - and the thieves richer.

The thieves quickly pull out wires from the light post and attach them to the back of a truck. They then get back in the truck and drive away, yanking about 300 feet of copper wiring from inside the pole. The light goes out and they move on to the next lamp.

As copper prices have soared across the globe, so, too, has copper theft across the Las Vegas Valley.

Metro Police estimate that local thieves are responsible for $200,000 to $300,000 in stolen copper and related damage every weekend. The metal is most often stolen from construction sites, streetlights and new homes.

"It's been going on for years," Metro Detective Allen Hanners said. "It's resurfaced now because the cost of copper is going up."

In the past five years, the price of copper has increased nearly 700 percent. Last week, the metal was selling for $3.50 per pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Local recycling and scrap-metal businesses pay $2 per pound for copper, but stolen copper can fetch up to twice that much on the black market.

In some cases, the cost of the stolen copper is only a small percentage of the victims' loss. Criminal scavengers sometimes scale a roof and cut the metal out of air-conditioning units - a theft that might net the thief $1,000 and cost the homeowner up to $40,000 in damage , Hanners said.

In September, Metro detectives teamed up with police from Henderson, North Las Vegas and the Clark County Business License Enforcement Unit to conduct "Operation Copperhead," the first of several planned police stings designed to identify and apprehend Clark County's metal thieves.

Police made nine arrests during Operation Copperhead and recovered several tons of stolen wire and metal. Aware that there are plenty more arrests to be made, police plan similar operations in the future.

"It happens quite a bit, usually in newer neighborhoods where they do not have the streetlights up," said Sean Walker, a North Las Vegas police department spokesman.

"This is not a 15-year-old kid. It's some guy who has worked as a plumber or electrician and knows how wiring works."

More than 60 percent of all copper being used is recycled, and there are about a half-dozen scrap-metal buyers in the region.

Dave Baldwin, manager of Abbie's Recycling Center on Vegas Valley Drive, said his business traditionally paid about 40 cents per pound for the metal. But with prices rising internationally, he quadrupled his price.

"Six months ago it went up and it stayed up," he said.

The demand for copper in emerging nations, a labor dispute with mine workers in Chile this year and the delay in new mines opening have created the boom.

"As a commodity it's dependent on supply and demand, and there has been an increasing demand from India and China," said Ken Geremia, a spokesman for the Copper Development Association in New York.

In Southern California, buyers pay as much as $3 per pound for the metal. The cost has made copper theft more profitable, and less dangerous, than knocking off liquor stores.

Criminals have quickly learned that scrap buyers will pay more than pennies for copper.

"To a meth head it says, 'Go ahead and take the wire, we'll pay for it,' " Hanners said. "A four-gauge power cord can weigh up to about 600 pounds. Copper pipes are heavy."

But it's difficult to trace the path of stolen copper. Sometimes, local recycling plants and black market merchants buy the metal . Sometimes the copper is sent out of state, then shipped overseas.

Bryan McGannon, a spokesman for the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industry Inc., said copper theft is a nationwide problem.

"Theft has always been a problem in the scrap business," McGannon said. "The industry is very concerned."

Although many scrap-metal buyers check identification and keep records similar to those at a pawnshop, determining whether the copper offered to them was obtained through legitimate channels is not always easy.

"We had a guy show up one day with sewer covers that said 'City of Las Vegas' on them," said Scott Stolberg, owner of AA Midwest. "People will take anything. It's unfortunate."

Stolberg and Baldwin both keep detailed records of sellers, and work with law enforcement when asked. Still, there's no way to prevent stolen scrap from entering their facilities.

"It's impossible," Baldwin said. "You deal with hundreds of people a day. The majority of them are contractors."

In Florida, one contractor spray-painted his copper pipes pink so he could identify them if they were stolen.

To weed out thieves, Baldwin quizzes sellers about how they got the copper.

" 'I found it in the desert' isn't good enough," he said. "I can't take it. If it looks like something that's been sitting somewhere, that's fine. Brand-new stuff doesn't sit in the desert."

Similarly, Stolberg says scrap buyers should take the initiative and avoid buying ill-gotten metal.

"You have to want to screen it out, and we do," he said. "We make enough money legitimately."

Construction companies have been taking additional precautions, including installing security cameras, Hanners said.

For police, chasing copper thieves can be frustrating. Because the thefts are usually nonviolent offenses, the thieves are often charged only with misdemeanors and punished with probation.

It's the victims - construction companies, developers and homeowners - who will continue to pay the price for stolen copper.

"These guys aren't doing it just one time," said Keith Paul, a spokesman for the Henderson Police Department. "They will keep doing it until we put them in jail."

Sun reporter Abigail Goldman contributed to this report.

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