What's behind recent rash of copper thefts?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/03/08

The pews are empty at Calvary Temple Holiness Church on Atlanta's scorching summer Sundays. Scrap-metal thieves have stripped the East Atlanta church of its air conditioning.

"They just completely destroyed them beyond repair," church board chairman Richard Bradford said. The thieves caused more than $30,000 in damage getting at less than $50 worth of copper.

Marcus K. Garner / mgarner@ajc.com
Metal salvager Allen Hinton says he requires identification from sellers of scrap metal before he does business with them.
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"We're on hiatus until the fall," Bradford said, noting that the church had been closed since May because of the gutted cooling unit.

A growing number of construction sites in Atlanta, and a surge in the number of vacant homes resulting from the mortgage crisis, have created opportunities for criminals to get at copper pipes, wiring and other building components. The metal is sold, often in nominal amounts, to recyclers.

The recent rise in metal thefts like the one against Calvary Temple prompted the creation last year of the Metro Atlanta Copper Task Force. Its aim is to stop the theft of the metal, which can command scrap prices of up to $3 per pound.

The task force is led by the Atlanta Police Department and involves police from East Point, Riverdale, and Cobb and DeKalb counties, as well as metro Atlanta recyclers, the Fulton County District Attorney's Office, and Georgia Power and other businesses.

"It's relatively easy to do," Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Carlos Banda said of copper stripping. "Plus, if you're arrested for a copper theft, there's not as much punishment."

Rarely do the amounts of copper stolen warrant felony burglary or theft by taking charges. Likewise, criminal property damage is only a misdemeanor.

So, armed with a year-old Georgia law that makes it a crime to knowingly buy stolen metal, the Task Force has been working to eliminate the means metal thieves use to fence their stolen goods.

Businesses help police

In Atlanta alone, copper-related crimes increased by 57 percent in the last year, police said. More than 800 such thefts have occurred in the past six months, according to a department review of incident reports.

Only 14 arrests were made during that time. Still, that's an improvement over the two arrests in the same time frame in 2007.

Georgia Power, the area's largest electricity provider, has seen the number of break-ins and theft attempts at its substations, power poles and other properties increase sixfold, from just 34 in 2005 to 210 in 2007.

Related arrests have gone up as well, said Georgia Power investigations supervisor and task force member Philip Peacock.

"We actively investigate all thefts or attacks on our property," Peacock said. "Arrests of individuals involved in these thefts from Georgia Power have increased more than 900 percent."

Twenty-three arrests were made last year of the utility company's nearly 60 open cases.

Aside from networking with area metal recyclers to keep track of what's been sold, task force members have lobbied to change state and local ordinances to squeeze rogue buyers.

"We wanted to make [recyclers] report records to us every day like pawn shops do," Atlanta police Lt. Barbara Cavender said. "But there are state laws that prohibit us from doing that."

Still, some area recyclers have been instrumental in helping police nab dealers of stolen materials.

Cavender said a woman acting as a secondary recycler earlier this year was ferreted out by other recyclers. During a six-month period, she had sold about $52,000 worth of copper to Schnitzer Steel Industries in Atlanta.

Joe Bulat, task force member and security director at Schnitzer, said the woman "was paying people 50 cents to $1 per pound for whatever they sold her, and she was bringing it to us." But she didn't have the certified scale and business license required by the state to re-sell metals.

"Police had her as a suspect," Cavender said. "We checked her certification and license, and brought her in."

She said the woman wasn't charged for stolen copper, however, because there was no way to prove that any of the metal was actually stolen.

Stealing steel

In late June, a Woodstock police officer saw water flowing from the shuttered Cherry Super Buffet on Ga. 92. On closer inspection, the officer discovered copper electric cables, an electric meter and the casing for an air conditioning unit missing, a police report said.

"[Thieves] were caught right in the middle of stealing the hot water heater," said Woodstock Det. Eugene Garcia, noting that copper wiring was taken from the heater, two air-conditioning units and the electric meter.

The thieves fled, he said. Police later discovered that two stainless steel sinks, a pair of steel gas stoves and stainless-steel buffet tables also had been taken.

"Copper has always been a problem," Garcia said. "But in the last year, steel has been the thing to steal."

For copper, the top money getter, thieves often exact thousands of dollars of damage to get at scraps. The average residential air-conditioning unit has less than $15 worth of copper that, if stripped, can sustain upwards of $6,000 in damage.

Now, recyclers and police speculate more common metals like stainless steel are surfacing on theft reports because events overseas are driving up demand.

"There's a lot of construction in India and China that makes this stuff more valuable," Bulat said. Stainless steel, like that taken from the Cherry Buffet, sells for as much as 90 cents per pound, Bulat said.

Garcia said the metal theft at Cherry Buffet heist was the second in Woodstock in a week.

Preventing the thefts

Calvary Temple ordinarily is empty during the week. That's why board chairman Bradford suspects his church was targeted twice.

"Somebody knows the church is unattended through the week," he said. After the first incident, "we'd put up chains on the driveway, thinking that would deter them."

It didn't work. Evidence shows the thieves who dismantled the church air conditioners cut through an adjacent property on foot.

So how can businesses and home owners protect their properties?

"Make your [property] harder to break into," Banda said. Police recommend putting a locking cage around air-conditioning units, or using contact alarms to alert authorities of tampering. Or, Banda said, "Use lighting, or [put] a dog near your unit."

For businesses, he also suggested marking copper wiring with special invisible ink or spray-painting it, as some utility companies now do to identify their property — not unlike branding.

Georgia Power's Peacock said his company is replacing copper wire where possible with steel-clad wire.

And how will Calvary Temple protect its new air conditioner?

"We're going to build some sort of enclosure for it, whether it be a brick enclosure or iron fence," Bradford said. "And we're going to alarm it."

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