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Builders hurt by increase in metal thefts

November 27, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

On a cold and damp Monday, contractor Mark Bozeat stood outside a local scrap-metal recycling business, hoping police could find $20,000 worth of his business' aluminum concrete forms and panels among the assorted scrap.

Bozeat, co-owner of West Shore Contracting Inc. in Falling Waters, W.Va., is one of a growing number of contractors and business owners who have found their job sites stripped of essential work materials over the last year.

"We've seen a drastic increase in thefts of copper, copper wiring and scrap metal," Washington County Sheriff's Department Investigator Greg Alton said. "It's especially going to hurt the smaller contractors. That comes out of their pocket to replace it."

Copper gutters were plucked from PenMar Development Corp.; overhead signal wiring has been pulled from area railroads and aluminum, appliances and other materials have been hauled in the night from homes and buildings under construction, The Herald-Mail has reported.

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Last Wednesday, $2,000 to $3,000 worth of copper wire was reported stolen from Danzer Metals, Alton said.

"People are actually going into the business or residence under construction and cutting it out - cutting the piping," Alton said.

The value of copper is high, he said. On Friday, copper cable or wiring was worth between $2.15 and $2.20 a pound, while aluminum cable or wiring was worth 65 cents a pound, Alton said.

The prices fluctuate daily, he said.

Alton, who helped Berkeley County, W.Va., Sheriff's Department deputies investigate Bozeat's loss, used a search warrant on this day to get Bozeat's materials back from Conservit Inc., south of Hagerstown, where police believe thieves sold the stolen materials.

Conservit Inc. President Jack Metzner said he felt police were criminalizing his business, which had to be shut down while investigators searched and identified the stolen property. Metzner and his brother, Lewis Metzner, an attorney and Hagerstown City Councilman, said they plan to sue the Sheriff's Department for harassment.

Jack Metzner wanted to see if Bozeat and another West Virginia business owner could pay him the approximately $3,000 he lost when the recycling company paid - unknowingly - for the stolen goods, which cost the contractors about $80,000.

However, if Bozeat or other business owners entered into a contract to pay back Conservit, criminal charges could not be brought against the thieves, Alton said.

Bozeat said he couldn't afford to pay the money back anyway.

The theft, which he discovered the morning of Nov. 10 from a job site off U.S. 11, "just about put me out of business for now," Bozeat said. "I'd have to go to a bank and get a loan to order and buy some more."

Lewis Metzner said that Conservit employees "typically look for things that appear stolen."

When people try to sell bronze grave markers, workers turn them away under the notion that the items likely are stolen, Metzner said.

Employees also have noticed people trying to sell railroad communication wire and other railroad materials, but realize that most of the time, those materials also are stolen, he said.

Lewis Metzner said the company cooperates with police, is aware of the rising number of material thefts and looks out for potential problems.

"We're just as convinced that we're buying it back," he said.

Police have two suspects in the Falling Waters construction thefts, but had not arrested the men by Friday, Alton said.

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