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Thieves make stealing copper a career, police say

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although copper thefts seem to be declining slightly from previous years, police say it remains an ongoing problem as thieves become more experienced and more brazen.

New laws designed to punish thieves and scrap dealers who buy stolen copper seem to be working, but police said the laws haven't stopped career criminals.

West Virginia State Police Sgt. Michael Baylous said copper theft remains a constant problem across the state. Authorities linked the crime to the price paid for scrap copper, which was about $3.62 per pound, according to figures available online.

In June, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law two new bills designed to clamp down on copper theft. One bill makes it a felony to steal copper cable and disrupt telephone or utility service. The other law restricts the sale of copper and other metals at scrap yards across the state.

In October, state lawmakers heard from the West Virginia State Police and others that the new laws were working and cited the decreasing number of reported copper thefts as proof. But lawmakers pointed out those figures were calculated in the first and second quarter this year, when copper prices were at the lowest.

Appalachian Power Spokesman Phil Moye said his company has never seen any significant decreases in copper theft. What they're seeing instead are thieves who become almost as experienced as electricians.

"Actually it varies," he said. "There are some that use bucket trucks and other places people are using very primitive homemade tools not designed to be used on electrical wires like bolt cutters."

He said a recent theft of only about $700 worth of copper from a substation in Kanawha City is an example of how severe the problem is.

The thieves, he said, were putting themselves and others in severe danger just for a few hundred dollars worth of metal.

"That station was very unstable and very dangerous," he said. "It's a situation where you could go in to make repairs and touch up against a piece of equipment and die."

That theft also knocked out power to nearly 3,000 people and forced CAMC Memorial Hospital in Kanawha City to switch to backup generators for a few hours.

Baylous said these thieves are rarely first-timers and usually have extensive criminal histories. They gain experience with trial-by-error or by helping other thieves.

"These are organized crimes," he said.

Baylous said a copper theft at the State Police Detachment in Whitesville demonstrated bold lengths thieves would go to commit their crimes.

In May, two Boone County men stole phone wiring from the detachment causing about $25,000 in damage and disrupted phone service for the detachment and community for nearly two days.

But what threatens to undermine police's efforts to curb copper thefts are transient scrap dealers from states as far away as Texas and Michigan bringing trucks to West Virginia to buy scrap metal.

The new law is designed to make it more difficult for transient scrap dealers to operate in West Virginia.

The rules require operators to have a business license, a permit through the Department of Environmental Protection, a scales certificate with the Division of Labor Weights and Measures section, and a registration with the Secretary of State's office.

However Baylous said sometimes these scrap dealers ignore the law and operate illegally.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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