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Recyclers steel themselves

A law meant to deter metal theft will take effect July 22, but that’s not soon enough for farmer Dan Herring.

Two weeks ago, somebody stole a quarter-mile-long copper electricity wire from his Quincy-area alfalfa farm. It cost him nearly $15,000 to get his irrigation system back up and running.

So he started patrolling his land several times every night in his pickup truck. Last week, he caught a thief red-handed, loading sections of copper wire into a car – another $15,000 gone.

The crook got away, even after Herring shot at the car’s grill and ran the car off the road. But not before Herring got a good look at his former employee.

Chief Criminal Deputy John Turley, with the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, said the suspect was 38-year-old Stephen Glen Low, a known metal thief who also allegedly uses meth. But Turley was excited to have Herring as an eyewitness. Low remains at large.

“It locks him up pretty doggone tight,” Turley said. “He has been a pain in our neck for years.”

As of now, the penalties for metal theft aren’t serious enough to deter subsequent infractions, he said.

That was one of the aims of Senate Bill 5312, which will require metal recycling companies to record more information about sellers and to hold payments of more than $30 for 10 days. It also gives judges the prerogative to slap harsher sentences on metal thieves.

The bill passed unanimously through both the state House and Senate. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed it May 8.

Victims of metal theft, and the police who try to catch the crooks, are thrilled about the new law. But it means more work for metal recycling companies – a lot more work.

“They’re just basically using us to catch the thieves,” said Jeri Haley, manager of Earthworks Recycling in Spokane.

Because the law requires a detailed account of every transaction a recycling company makes with a scrap seller, Earthworks will have to do about 20 times the paperwork it does now, Haley said. That means the company probably will need to find the money to pay another employee.

“So in the end, we’re just paying out lower prices,” Haley said. “We’re not that excited about it.”

The law redefines metal recyclers as secondhand dealers, just like pawn shops, which already provide sellers’ personal information, said Sgt. Steve Barbieri with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

Earthworks already takes down most of the personal seller information the law will require to aid police, Haley said. The company doesn’t buy from known thieves or problem sellers and works with police investigations, she said.

“I mean, we’re doing the policing, but nothing really happens,” she said.

Spokane County is planning an electronic database for tracking secondhand dealers’ transactions. It would help authorities identify and pursue suspected metal thieves, Barbieri said. He said he is not yet sure how the law will help the Sheriff’s Office track them, but he knows it will.

“Metal thefts are just going rampant because we, law enforcement, have no way of tracking it,” he said. “So (the database) takes a little bit of work. The database just points us in the right direction.”

Haley said an electronic database wouldn’t reduce any added paperwork Earthworks will have to do.

The law mostly aims to deter thieves, said Collins Sprague, the Avista Utilities lobbyist who drafted the original bill in Olympia. Avista is a frequent victim of metal theft, he said.

Right now, scrap sellers receive all of their money on the spot. After July 22, payments of more then $30 must be withheld 10 days then sent to a street address – post office boxes won’t do.

The most rampant crooks are meth addicts, who steal metal then sell it for quick money and a quick fix. In the city, sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Reagan said, they seem to steal anything they can get their hands on – from power transformers to copper piping to cooking pans.

“To try to really deter (theft) from happening is to take away the cash incentive for this,” Sprague said.

But many meth addicts don’t even have a street address, Haley said. Some of Earthworks’ legal clients use only post office boxes, including farmers and businesses, she said.

And a meth addict who needs money can be quite determined.

“There’s just a good chance that they’re making trips to more recycling places to get under that $30 limit,” Haley said.

Nevertheless, lawmakers seem to be trying to make a difference by passing the metal theft bill. In Spokane County, Reagan gets reports of metal theft “almost daily,” he said.

And in Grant County, and at farms like Herring’s, metal theft is threatening people’s livelihood.

“We’re all just sick and tired of this situation down here,” Turley said.

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