These entrepreneurs probably won’t be in the running for a business leadership award anytime soon.
Police say a band of suspected metal thieves created a Spokane-based business, complete with licenses from the Washington Department of Revenue, to get around state laws designed to discourage theft by making it tougher for individuals to sell stolen metal to scrap yards. The state exempts licensed businesses from the mandatory 10-day waiting period for payments of over $30 on scrap metal sold to recyclers.
The five men charged are accused of stealing thousands of pounds of power lines from Avista Utilities and selling the copper wire to fuel their drug habits. The stolen metal meant a massive payday in the thousands of dollars. A business license meant it came instantly. And it was easy to obtain.
The licenses for the alleged criminal enterprises We Do It and CWRT - Copper Wire Removal Team - aren’t fraudulent because there’s no process to obtain them other than filling out an application and paying the $15 fee, said Mike Gowrylow, spokesman for the Washington Department of Revenue.
“We don’t really distinguish between legal and illegal activity,” Gowrylow said. “It’s just not on our radar.”
The licenses for CWRT and We Do It still are active in Washington state, even as the licensees face dozens of felony charges in Spokane County Superior Court for an alleged copper theft ring that costs Avista Utilities about $300,000.
Tristan M. Goiri-Christensen, 26; Paul Knight Jr., 26; Tyler L. Herrell, 19; Christopher H. Bilbrey, 24; and Gerald A. Many, 43, pleaded not guilty Monday to first-degree theft. All but Many face several counts of first-degree trafficking in stolen property for thousands of dollars in alleged copper wire sales in July and August. The men are out of jail awaiting trial after appearing in court voluntarily for their arraignments.
Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Jennison said it’s too early to say how the case likely will proceed, but that at least some of the defendants have cooperated with police, which is conducive to a plea deal instead of a jury trial.
Knight obtained a business license for CWRT in July. Bilbrey and Many got a license for We Do It in August.
Jennison said he’s seen previous cases involving wire thieves who obtained business licenses to get paid quicker. Sometimes the thieves started out with the intention of legally scrapping metal.
But, Jennison said, “I don’t know if that’s the case here. You don’t accidentally take something you thought was scrap when it’s Avista power lines.”
Along with being costly to repair, stealing power lines is a risky business.
Avista spokeswoman Debbie Simock said a thief recently came within a millimeter of electrocution while trying to steal copper wire from live electrical equipment in the Post Falls area - the third such theft in the past few weeks.
“People are walking around today who are very lucky, and they might not even realize how close to death they were,” she said. “People are truly putting their lives on the lines when they do this.”
Avista estimated about 23,000 pounds of power lines were stolen from the Five Mile/Waikiki roads area last summer. Copper sells for about $3 per pound.
Records at local recycling centers showed the men sold wire on dozens of occasions and used business licenses to get immediate payments as high as $5,049, according to court records.
Goiri-Christensen, who got about $15,000 for 5,000 pounds of copper sold on eight occasions, told a Spokane County sheriff’s detective he used the money to support his OxyContin habit, according to court documents.
The alleged criminal enterprise began to unravel in September when a contract employee with Avista overheard a man at a bar saying he knew where large amounts of copper wire were located in Deer Park. Detectives spoke to the man, who said he know of a man named “Tristan” or “Tiny” who had a bunch of copper wire to sell.
A month earlier, Spokane police had heard the name Tristan after finding 500 pounds of copper wire, as well as bolt cutters, in Bilbrey’s car after arresting him for driving with a suspended license.
Detectives identified Goiri-Christensen as a suspect and contacted him by phone. He told them he’d cut down and stolen Avista power lines twice with Knight and Herrell to get money for OxyContin from Many, according to court documents. Bilbrey also told police he used the money for drugs, documents say. Many paid for the business licenses, documents allege.
Gowrylow said the state revokes business licenses for those who don’t pay taxes, but blatant illegal activity isn’t a reason for revocation.
“The licensing system isn’t set up to detect people who use licenses for illegal purposes,” Gowrylow said.