Copper: The New Theft Material of Choice

Thieves striking construction projects, industrial facilities with copper supplies


Gilbert has had a rash of copper thefts that have stripped homes and commercial and industrial sites. Since January, there have been more than 230 copper thefts, Meyer said.

In Tempe, thieves are breaking into water meters across the city, detective Sgt. James Click said.

Along U.S. 60, Interstate 10 and sections of Interstate 17, thieves have stripped copper from power boxes, causing lights to black out, said Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Doug Nintzel.

In Chandler, thieves are striking abandoned warehouses and industrial buildings, pillaging through the walls and ceilings, detective Rich Garcia said.

There have been more than 70 reported cases since January in Chandler, Garcia said. Mesa police have seen more than 40 reports since August, Koliboski said.

For police who struggle to identify the criminals, the arrests are few and far between.

"This has got to be one of the most difficult things I've ever investigated, by far, by far," Garcia said.

Often, it is a case of catching crooks with copper in their hands or in their vehicles that lands the thieves in jail.

In mid-February, Scottsdale police conducting a routine traffic stop arrested two Apache Junction men -- ages 40 and 45 -- on suspicion of stealing copper piping from Horizon Irrigation. A detective conducted a traffic stop in late March and arrested a 51-year-old man on suspicion of stripping copper piping from air-conditioning units.

A Chandler officer in May spotted a Chrysler Sebring with its open trunk full of multi-colored, insulated copper wires. A 34-year-old Gilbert man was pulled over and detained on suspicion of stolen property, Garcia said.

On Sept. 29, Maricopa County sheriff's officers were called to a dairy in the 11900 block of Lower Buckeye Road after workers there spotted a suspicious vehicle.

Deputies found two men, ages 23 and 28, in the process of stripping copper wires from an electrical box inside an abandoned building, said spokesman deputy Doug Matteson.

And, in at least three cases, electrocutions stopped the criminals in their tracks.

The most recent example occurred Dec. 3 at 4422 E. University Drive in Mesa, where the body of a 23-yearold Gilbert man was found wedged into an electrical box behind a vacant grocery store, according to a Mesa police report. Copper wiring had been removed from several of the five electrical boxes.

In June 2004, the body of a 40-year-old Mesa man with wire cutters in his right hand was found at a Mesa golf driving range at 9355 E. Southern Ave., according to a police report. He was found near a light pole.

A 32-year-old man died in an abandoned Chandler building in October 2005 in the 2000 block of West Chandler Boulevard, Garcia said. He had been trying to steal copper from an electric panel.

'WE DON'T THINK WE CAN STOP IT'

The Home Builders Association of Central Arizona calls the problem an epidemic. And police see copper theft as a rampant crime that must come to an end.

Detectives are conducting surveillance at job sites as well as scrap yards and asking officers to watch for suspicious activity. Homebuilders and utility companies have placed fencing and guards on property to protect their copper.

Gilbert police are looking at Global Positioning Satellite technology as a way to track large spools of copper and have beefed up patrols. But they remain concerned that it might not be enough, Meyer said.

"Sometimes, when you go to one area, they move to somewhere else," he said. "It's kind of a guessing game."

Tempe detectives are working to identify the thieves and compile a list they can share with patrol officers from their own agency as well as from across the Valley, Click said.