Copper: The New Theft Material of Choice

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.


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.

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.


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.

Farnsworth Homes hired a nighttime security officer for Sunland Springs Village after copper was taken from 17 homes in June, Jestes said.

But it is a campaign that brings builders, police and scrap yards together that has many optimistic about putting a dent in the crime trend.

Koliboski said homebuilders are being urged to paint their copper pipes and wires, and scrap yards are being asked to look for the marked copper, which is no longer worth as much as the unpainted copper that recyclers seek.

In late September, Farnsworth Homes began painting its copper pipes yellow -- a color only used by the building company. So far, seven other homebuilders are on board with the campaign.

"We don't think we can stop it," Jestes said about the crime. "We think we can really put a dent in it."

Koliboski is working with scrap yards such as Arizona Recycling Corp., 12 W. Southern Ave. in Mesa, on the copper-painting campaign and his goal to stop the theft of the metal.

As the detective walked through a garage and side room filled with thousands of dollars of copper pipes and wires, he pointed to material he said is suspicious -- lengthy copper that is bright and shiny.

A barrel was filled with 200 pounds of copper tubing brought on Sept. 9 from Miami, Ariz.

"This is usable, not only a usable quantity, but it's brandnew metal," Koliboski said. "Why would someone turn in 200 pounds of brand-new metal when it's usable? Obviously, it's stolen from somewhere."

A piece of paper attached to the copper denotes information about the seller. When a person brings the metal to a recycler, the individual has to provide a valid identification with a name and address. Rey Hernandez, manager of Arizona Recycling, said he also writes down the person's license plate number.

While scrap yards such as this one continue to try to operate their businesses and bring in metal, they also are reporting suspicious copper to police.

"When it's new-looking stuff, I feel like not to buy it," Hernandez said. "At the same time, some of the detectives told me, 'If you don't buy it then we cannot catch the guys.' "

Hernandez said he now checks for painted copper. At the end of each day he also faxes an inventory to police.

"Whether I think it's stolen or not, I still got to follow the rules," Hernandez said. "Even when they bring me little small pieces and stuff like that, I still got to do the same thing."

Officials admit their measures aren't a stopgap. And the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona fears the trend won't end until copper prices decline.

"Unfortunately, it might take a significant drop in copper prices to curtail this," Barnett said. "Nevertheless, we feel like it's a battle worth fighting."

Copyright (c) 2006, The Tribune, Mesa, Ariz. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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