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Law enforcement agencies report rise in metal-related theft

In Md. and W.Va., criminals continue to target copper, steel and iron items for 'quick money'

August 30, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com
  • A copper water line was recently cut and taken for scrap from an empty home in Hagerstown.
Herald-Mail file photo

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Gold and silver apparently are not the only "precious" metals in the world, at least in the eyes of area thieves.

In fact, just about any item containing copper or any other increasingly valuable metal — from heat pumps and air conditioners to catalytic converters — continues to be a target for theft, according to law-enforcement agencies in Washington County and the Eastern Panhandle.

Utility manhole covers, grates from car washes and items made with iron and steel also have been carted off to recycling facilities for quick cash, police said this week.

"We have a big problem with it right now," said Washington County Sheriff's Office detective, Cpl. Greg Alton.

"We're definitely seeing an increase."

Foreclosed homes have been stripped of copper pipe and electrical wiring and heat pumps, and air-conditioning units have become a target at both residential and commercial properties, whether vacant or occupied, according to police.

In a span of about 75 days between May and July, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office investigated 675 larcenies, and Deputy Lt. Daniel McGown estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of the cases were metal-related thefts.

A heat pump or air-conditioning unit that costs $3,000 to $5,000 is being chopped into pieces, and the copper is being sold for scrap to net $100 to $300, according to police.

Prices for copper remained higher than $4 a pound on Tuesday, according to wire reports.

In Jefferson County, Jesse Jones, the chief of staff for the sheriff's department, recalled a report of a catalytic converter being sawed off a vehicle that was parked at the Duffields train station.

The value of the vehicle part to thieves is the platinum, palladium and rhodium metal contained inside them, police said.

"It's quick money," Jones said. "It's all profit."

Within the past year, Jones said reports of metal-related theft have multiplied in Jefferson County to the point where it's reached "almost epidemic proportions." Reports of metal-related theft are fielded daily, Jones said.

"We even had a guy whose well pump was stolen," Jones said.

In some instances, Jones said the damage caused while wiring is being stolen from a home can be more costly to the property owner than what is taken.  

Railroad officials have also reported the theft of wiring and plates used to secure the rails to the cross ties of railroad tracks, Jones said.

Aside from the residential and commercial property theft, Alton said a cellphone tower and an electrical power substation have been targeted in Washington County.

McGown and Jones said they hope the West Virginia Legislature will quickly pass legislation to enhance reporting requirements at metal recycling facilities to help track what is sold there.

"Metal recyclers (in West Virginia) do not have to report what they're taking," McGown said.

Stolen manhole covers that have been intentionally buried in the bottom of a truckload of scrap and aren't discovered until after the person been paid, McGown said.

McGown credited the voluntary cooperation of Ernie's Recycling Center & Salvage Yard with the sheriff's department, but hopes the law can still be put into effect.

Maryland has established databases to help combat metal theft, and Alton said the tools have helped with investigations, including some where scrap metal has crossed state lines, from Maryland to West Virginia and vice versa.

Alton said he took part in a regional meeting in Martinsburg where law-enforcement officers, metal recyclers and officials with Potomac Edison and CSX Transportation exchanged information concerning the rise of metal theft in the Tri-State region.

During the meeting, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office said law-enforcement officers had to excuse themselves to investigate two separate reports of metal-related theft.

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