TACOMA – Pierce County authorities attribute an increase in metal theft to methamphetamine abuse, with addicts stealing copper wire and selling it to scrap dealers for fast cash.
When sheriffs’ deputies arrested a 29-year-old Graham man last month stealing copper wiring from a Puyallup-area grocery store – ignoring even the cash-filled safe – they said it represented a growing trend of thieves swiping copper wiring, tubing and gutters to get money for a meth habit.
“We’re losing anything from copper wiring in new homes … to copper fittings on hot water heaters,” said Fife police Lt. Dave Woods. “It’s been ridiculous where we’re losing the stuff.”
Copper prices have risen with China’s recent building boom and market speculation, said Jim Sharick, general manager of Tacoma Metals Inc., a scrap metal buyer at the Port of Tacoma.
In mid-May, copper was almost $4 per pound compared to $2.10 per pound late last year, according to Kitco.com, a precious metals retailer. Recent trading puts it at about $3.60 per pound.
Almost $38,000 in materials was stolen in June in 10 copper thefts in Yelm, Olympia and Tenino, according to information released by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department.
In Tacoma, the frequency of copper thefts in the Nalley Valley industrial area has investigators helping businesses install camera surveillance, police spokeswoman Tracy Conaway said.
“It takes such a short period of time, and they leave no evidence behind,” she said. Search “dogs can be more effective, but we’re pushing for them to get cameras.”
Tacoma Public Utilities has increased security after thefts at its buildings, spokeswoman Sue Veseth said.
There’s been a 25 percent increase in metal thefts since 2005, said Detective Brian Stepp, who investigated the June grocery store theft for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. He said he sees a direct connection between the thefts and methamphetamine addiction.
To combat the problem, there needs to be better communication between metal businesses and law enforcement agencies, Stepp said. A statewide system whereby police departments could quickly send information to every metal processor in Washington about stolen goods could hinder thieves’ ability to sell copper, he said.
“People are starting to recognize that we need to do something about it,” Stepp said
In Fife, four people were arrested June 5 in the theft of 8,800 feet of Union Pacific Railroad signaling wire that contained copper. Investigators traced two of the people to a house near Bonney Lake where they found a possible meth lab. Four other people were arrested for investigation of unlawful manufacture of a controlled substance.
Wire thefts along the Union Pacific Railroad fluctuate with the price of copper, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.
Railroads have begun burying signaling wire, or using fiber optic cable instead of copper, he said.
“A lot of these lines are still energized with electricity,” Davis said. It’s “extremely dangerous to try and take wire.”
A 22-year-old Tacoma man was electrocuted in September in an attempt to steal railroad wire containing copper, Fife police said.
He and a 28-year-old man threw a rope over a high-voltage line and the 22-year-old was killed. The older man suffered severe burns on his hands and feet.
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