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‘Pandemic’ of thefts

Mathew Hacker, center, has his identification copied by Kevin Wilson at Action Recycling  after he brought in copper to be recycled. Andrew Allard, right, waits to hand off some papers. 
 (Photos by Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)
Mathew Hacker, center, has his identification copied by Kevin Wilson at Action Recycling after he brought in copper to be recycled. Andrew Allard, right, waits to hand off some papers. (Photos by Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)

If there were a trophy for recycling, there’s a good chance it would be stolen and melted for scrap.

Demand for recycled metal in developing countries such as China has driven prices so high that pulling wires from electrical substations and dismantling railroad signals makes sense – at least if you’re on methamphetamine.

Spokane County sheriff’s detectives say hardly a day passes without a report of one or two metal thefts.

In Grant County, where farmers use vast, wire-laden irrigation systems, the Sheriff’s Office has declared a metal-theft “pandemic.”

The material frequently is stolen locally, sold to recycling centers, then shipped overseas.

Copper is king and electrical wire is a favorite target, whether it’s in a farmer’s field, in a home under construction, on a utility pole or in the path of a BNSF locomotive.

Four Wenatchee residents were convicted late last year of stealing six strands of railroad communication wire in a 15-mile section in Grant County. The 475,200 feet of copper wire had a replacement value of $190,080.

BNSF railroad police said in court documents that 1,440 hours of overtime – worth $90,000 – and other costs brought the total damages to $280,615. In addition, about 30 trains were delayed over a 10-day period.

Railroad police found that recyclers paid the thieves $4,698 for 3,925 pounds of copper wire. The longest sentence any of the thieves received was four months.

Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Lloyd Hixson, who has handled numerous metal theft cases, said it is not unusual for thieves to cause far more damage than their stolen metal is worth. Little more than a week ago, the Titleist Meats and Auto Explosion building at 7814 E. Sprague Ave. was flooded by someone trying to steal copper pipe.

Avista and other electrical utilities have been especially popular targets.

“The boldness of the thieves is just remarkable,” Avista spokeswoman Debbie Simock said. “We are extremely afraid that someone is going to be killed or seriously injured.”

She said thieves with dangerously little knowledge of electrical systems have vandalized the company’s electrical transformers and pulled down neutral wires that could, in some cases, be electrified. They’ve also tried to dig up underground lines and have stolen supplies from the company’s trucks.

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office and Coeur d’Alene police say they have had relatively few reports of metal theft, but there have been several in the past month. The Kootenai Electric Cooperative offered a $500 reward for information in the Jan. 10 theft of $1,000 worth of wire from a work site.

“Fortunately, this wire was not energized,” said Gary Nieborsky, the cooperative’s engineering and operations manager. “If it had been, the thief would not be alive.”

A 47-year-old man was killed while breaking in to a Clark County Public Utility District substation in La Center, Wash., on Oct. 11.

Theft of grounding wires also places electrical workers in danger, according to Gary Garnant, spokesman for the Grant County Public Utility District, which has had its share of thefts.

As bad as metal thefts are in urban areas, the problem may be worse in rural areas, Avista’s Simock said. Thefts that don’t cause outages may not be noticed for months.

“We don’t necessarily have an understanding of the full scope of the problem,” Simock said.

Sheriff’s Detective Hixson said it is reasonable to believe that only half of metal thefts are reported.

Metal thefts in the Columbia Basin often involve two kinds of irrigation systems, both of which have lots of aluminum pipe and great lengths of heavy electrical wire.

Pivoting “circle” systems have wires running along the pipes in neoprene conduits.

“Lateral” systems that move through fields in a straight line get their power from 1 1/2-inch electrical cords that can be as long as 1,500 feet. Authorities say each foot contains about a pound of copper, worth from $1.40 to nearly $3 a pound as scrap. The same foot of cable costs farmers up to $10.

With only five deputies on the road per shift – each trying to patrol 533 square miles while answering 40 to 50 calls for service – keeping an eye on all that metal is “an impossible task,” said John Turley, chief criminal deputy in the Grant County Sheriff’s Office.

“A pair of pruning shears and away you go,” Turley said.

So the sheriff’s office launched a public information campaign and, with other law enforcement agencies, began focusing on companies that buy scrap metal. Deputies began insisting that the county’s half-dozen or so recyclers do a better job of complying with the state’s minimal record-keeping requirements, Turley said.

“We really hammered the recyclers, and most of the recyclers are now cooperating because they know we’re coming around,” Turley said. “We have let the recyclers know that if they are caught in any way, shape or form, we will punish.”

The sheriff’s office also conducted two public meetings late last year in Quincy and Moses Lake that together drew about 120 people. Officers shared tips and urged residents to report suspicious activity.

The tips included a warning that metal thieves sometimes use vans with logos on the side – including stolen magnetic signs – to try to pass themselves off as repairmen.

Also, sheriff’s officers advised, residents should be on the lookout for thick, black smoke from burning insulation. Wire thieves burn off insulation to increase scrap value and to make stolen wire harder to identify.

Turley said the advice paid off in October when a Moses Lake-area resident noticed a white van with writing on the side drive into a gravel pit. Later, the resident noticed black smoke coming from the pit and called the sheriff’s office.

A deputy caught three men burning big spools of wire stolen from a Warden, Wash., business. One of the men was Richard Allen Myrick, 39, who was awaiting trial on charges of attempted first-degree theft, first-degree malicious mischief and methamphetamine possession in a March 11 incident in which he was caught trying to steal irrigation wire.

Myrick has since pleaded guilty to reduced charges in both cases.

Court documents in the March 11 case say Myrick’s girlfriend, who wasn’t charged, had been selling wire for him at Bargain Town Metals in Moses Lake. She got $205 on one occasion and $189 on another, according to a sheriff’s affidavit.

In pending cases against four other people accused of stealing wire from a Warden business, Turley said Bargain Town’s records showed they made 34 deliveries to Bargain Town and were paid $6,213.

Two bills under consideration in the Washington Legislature would give police and victims more tools to combat the problem. Both bills would require dealers to wait before reselling scrap metal and to check the names of sellers against a police database.

Bargain Town owner Charles Hepburn objects to the proposed legislation that would require him to hold onto purchased metal for several weeks, but said he would be glad to check his customers against a sheriff’s database of convicted thieves.

“We ought to be able to get a handle on this if we just get a little information,” he said.

Most recyclers already share information among themselves in an effort to avoid buying stolen metal, Hepburn said. He said he banished Myrick’s girlfriend before the sheriff’s office linked her to Myrick’s wire thefts. Hepburn said she brought in the kind of extra-heavy power cords that later were discovered to have been stolen from the local J.R. Simplot packing plant.

Simplot bought back the cords, worth $1,000 to $1,500, for their scrap value of approximately $300, Hepburn said.

In another pending case, Turley said, a farmer driving to Spokane found himself behind a truck loaded with irrigation system wire, aluminum pipe and radiator cores – “all of the things that were being stolen here in Grant County.” The farmer reported the truck’s license number, which was traced to a Moses Lake-area company.

An investigation revealed that the load included an unusually thick and pure grade of aluminum pipe that had been stolen from a fire district that acquired it from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The Moses Lake company sold the pipe to Action Recycling in Spokane and vouched for the original seller. Action owner Hap Ahlborn said, “We kind of raised our eyebrows.” Several Spokane-area metal recycling firms have helped law enforcement, none more than Action Recycling, according to Detective Hixson.

“The people we’re catching, it’s generally because the recyclers are working with us,” Hixson said.

He noted that Ahlborn’s son, Glenn Ahlborn, set up a fax network several years ago to allow recyclers to warn one another about recently stolen items or suspicious customers. Many theft victims report their losses directly to the recyclers’ network, Hixson said.

Hap Ahlborn said the fax network, now supplemented with an e-mail group, links about 15 dealers in Eastern and Central Washington and in North Idaho.

Dealers in coastal cities are added to the network if there is an unusually large theft. As a result, Ahlborn said, suspects in the burglary of a Walla Walla recycling center were arrested in Portland last March.

Ahlborn went a step further late last year when he became suspicious of a man who started bringing in new rolls of copper wire.

“I spent three days on the phone to all the electrical contractors, all the electrical supply houses and the home improvement stores – anybody that sold wire,” he said.

Ultimately, he found only one business sold both types of wire the customer was offering. When the customer came to Action Recycling again with about $1,500 worth of allegedly shoplifted wire, Action employees blocked his vehicle with forklifts until officers arrived, Ahlborn said.

Nevertheless, some victims suspect many recyclers aren’t doing enough.

Avista’s Simock noted that, when two 300-pound bronze historical medallions were stolen from the company headquarters 2 1/2 years ago, a second-hand shop and a scrap dealer each acquired one without calling Avista.

When someone offers to sell something with a corporation’s name all over it, “you would think that would prompt some questions,” Simock said.


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