Stopping Thieves at the Gates of Scrap Metal Yards

Feb. 22--In the war on recyclable metal thefts, local law enforcement officials are taking a new approach.

They wait in front of scrap yards, stop everyone trying to recycle copper, brass and aluminum, and ask them where they got the metal.

The goal is to send a message to thieves that police and recyclers are working together, officials said Wednesday.

Investigators from the Sheriff's Department and Modesto, Ceres and Turlock police departments participated in the operation from 8 to 11 a.m. Tuesday.

They had mixed results: Although detectives arrested four people and towed three cars, nobody was caught with stolen recyclable metals, sheriff's deputy Royjindar Singh said. Two men were arrested on parole violations, one for driving with a suspended license and one on drug charges.

But recyclers welcomed the operation.

"They can can come anytime they want," said Linda Newell, co-owner of Jim Newell's Iron & Metal. "We don't want stolen material in our yard, period."

In the past, scrap yard owners have complained that law enforcement treats them, not the thieves stealing the metals, as the criminals. During an August sting, undercover detectives tried to sell 118 pounds of copper wire marked with Pacific Gas & Electric tags to local recyclers. Four of the six bought the wire.

Since then, however, many owners have tightened security and followed laws requiring them to check identification and document all transactions, officials said.

"Most of the people I talk to are doing a great job verifying ownership" of the recyclable metals, Modesto police Detective Mike Freudenthal said.

At Newell's, employees no longer accept metal from anyone on a bicycle or on foot. Customers must have a current driver's license and a car to do business there, Newell said.

"We're legitimate, hardworking, honest people," she said. "We're not the criminals, the thieves are."

Investigators plan similar operations in the future, sheriff's Detective Larry Seymour said.

They also plan to hold meetings with recyclers to educate them on thefts and discuss additional ways to fight the problem, Freudenthal said.

"This is a nationwide problem ... and everyone is trying a different program and getting mixed results," Freudenthal said. "If people selling stolen materials know the salvage companies work directly with police, maybe it will stop some people from stealing."

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Modesto Bee, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.