Copper: The New Theft Material of Choice

Thieves striking construction projects, industrial facilities with copper supplies


Oct. 22--Speaking passionately about crime trends in the Valley, police detective Kevin Koliboski drove his compact car into a field of retirement homes being built along a plush golf course lined with palm trees in east Mesa.

The houses with Spanish-tile roofs and covered patios sit on land that once was just desert that ran for miles to the foothills of the Superstition Mountains.

Gray concrete slabs and wooden frames with exposed copper wires and pipes mark the sites of future homes at Sunland Springs Village on this late afternoon in early autumn.

Each day, Koliboski thinks about complexes such as this one as he attempts to rid Mesa of copper theft -- a crime trend that leaves no Valley city immune and has resulted in a loss of materials, money and time for homebuilders as well as home buyers.

The monetary loss this year across the Valley totals hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Lauren Barnett, deputy director of municipal affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.

Copper theft surged when industrial growth in China sent metal prices soaring, reaching $3.56 per pound on Monday. The surge in market value has criminals striking everything that contains the now precious metal that's found in homes, water meters, streetlights, power boxes and air conditioners.

Crooks sell the heisted metal to scrap yards, where it fetches prices ranging from $1.10 to $2.70 a pound, depending on the quality of the copper and location of the recycler. Eventually, the scrap is resold to brokerage companies and smelters.

Police in the past have been relatively powerless when it came to catching the thieves.

Often, surveillance has been required to make an arrest. At times, electrocution from live wires ended a copper thief's career.

Many companies today employ guards to secure their copper. In a recent campaign to track stolen metal, Mesa police and homebuilders are arming themselves with paint to mark copper pipes and other copper-based materials to make them less marketable.

'WHERE YOU OR I WOULDN'T SEND OUR DOG'

There is no single profile for the criminals. However, many officers say the crooks are often methamphetamine addicts committing the thefts to get some cash and drugs.

"If you're tweakin' and you need a quick drug fix, 100 bucks every two days takes care of you," Koliboski said.

The street-level thieves ride bicycles and have no jobs. Their occupation is to steal copper, Mesa officer Kevin Stees said.

Criminals have tied chains from truck hitches to copper pipes and torn them from foundations, said Kevin Jestes, safety director for Farnsworth Homes, the Sunland Springs Village developer.

"That just rips us to shreds," Jestes said. "We have to start the whole process over. We have to rip it out and start all over again."

Mesa police tell of criminals crawling under trailers and stealing wires and pipes. Climbing into empty buildings, they raid air-conditioning units, junction boxes and live wires.

"Where you or I wouldn't send our dog, they will go and steal it from," Stees said.

As of mid-October, Scottsdale police had received more than 100 reports of thefts or attempted thefts this year, said police spokesman Sgt. Mark Clark.

Miscreants in Gilbert are stealing spools of wire from commercial areas and construction sites, using ladders to scale fences and blowtorches to break into storage units, detective Sgt. David Meyer said of his town.

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