County facing scrapyard bandits

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 14, 2006

It was not your average heist. Thieves broke into the Ironton Water Works building last weekend and made away with an estimated $3,500. Was it money they took? A piece of heavy equipment? A car?

No. The thieves — and it is likely there was more than one — made off with 400 feet of copper wire.

Why would someone steal copper wire from the city?

Email newsletter signup

Because right now, the price of scrap metal, particularly copper, is high and those who have it can make a lot of money. From live telephone wires to copper coils out of air conditioners to other kinds of scrap metal, thieves who want valuables are availing themselves of someone else’s possessions.

Five-finger discount

Thefts are commonplace on police reports.

But along with the stolen yard ornaments and cars and bicycles, culprits have pulled off some thefts that until recently were rare — if not unheard of.

“There were two spools,” city street superintendent Mike Pemberton said of his stolen copper wire. “You couldn’t carry one spool. They would have to had to have rolled it out. That tells you how much it weighed. One spool was No. 3 three-conductor with ground, that’s four copper wires and there was probably 250 feet on that spool. The second spool was No. 4 three-conductor with ground and it had four wires, but a little smaller wires.

“I’m figuring it was worth about $1,400. Both of them, I’d say were right at $3,500.”

Pemberton said he is looking into whether insurance will cover the theft. If not, the city will eat the cost of replacing the wire.

Area authorities recently arrested four people who allegedly stole approximately 400 feet of live AT&T telephone lines from an area along Lawrence Street Road.

The theft disrupted telephone service for a couple hundred customers until the phone lines were repaired.

A South Point resident came home to find a window unit air conditioner stolen on the Fourth of July. Air conditioners have copper coils inside. Steal enough air conditioners and you may wind up with a few pounds of copper to scrap.

“Someone had an air conditioner stolen the other day,” Ironton Police Detective Jim Akers said. “It was one of the big ones, it wasn’t hooked up and somebody just took it off the porch.

“Liebert had a bunch of copper stolen a while back. We had a case here awhile back where a man was remodeling a house and someone came in and stole the copper pipes. It’s not safe to have anything anymore.”

Other items are being stolen hauled in for scrap as well.

Rick Elkins, manager of the Ironton office of Empire Metal Recycling, Inc., said the price for scrap metal right now brings $2.50-$7.50 a pound, depending on what kind of metal it is and whether it is in good condition. At the top of the heap right now, so to speak, is copper.

“Copper right now is $2.20 a pound. It was $2.60 but it dropped a little. That’s for No. 1 pencil lead or bigger, good and clean,” he said.

On the legit side

Not everyone who pulls a car full of scrap metal into a recycling center is a thief. Most will haul in their own junk and some may pick up scrap from illegal dumps, but few, fortunately, would resort to cutting live telephone lines or breaking into someone else’s property.

“If I’ve got something around the house I will bring it in,” Buddy Mays of South Point said. “I get a little money. I may go out and clean a creek but if it ain’t easy to get I’m not going after it.

“I ain’t putting myself in jeopardy of getting put behind bars. I’ve been a free man all my life and it’s going to stay that way.”

Larry McNeely, of Ironton, remodels houses and brings old aluminum salvaged from the job site to Empire periodically to get rid of it and make a little money.

“I don’t go out and look for it,” McNeely said.

Nor does Doug Blum of Greenup, Ky. Blum and some friends have a garage. When the unusable car parts pile up, he hauls the parts off to the recycling center.

“Things like old rotors, they can’t be repaired, that’s unsafe,” he said. “So after a while we bring it in. It took me about a month-and-a-half to get that right there,” he said, pointing to the scrap parts in the back of his pickup truck.

Blum said he thought he would get $60 from his load on Friday afternoon. One time he and his girlfriend, who works construction, saved their scrap for a year, recycled it and took the $600 they made off of it and went on vacation.

“We went to the rodeo in Chillicothe,” he mused.

What to do?

Ironton Police Chief Jim Carey said his officers are investigating the thefts within the city and Empire executives are working with authorities to nab the culprits.

But Carey would like to see the city require recycling centers to get more information from those bringing in scrap for money.

“I have discussed with the mayor (John Elam) a little but whether or not they plan to do anything I don’t know,” Carey said. “My recommendation is to require a photo ID not just on dollar amounts or (larger) sizes but anything.”

In the meantime, Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton said those who have items that others may want should make stealing it as difficult as possible.

“Thieves are opportunistic,” Sexton said. “If you provide the opportunity, they will take you up on it.”

Sexton’s advice:

Be protective of property. “We’ve had ATV thefts where the owner sat the ATV in the yard with a ‘for sale’ sign and thieves come by, see it and then come back at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and just load it up and take it. Don’t set stuff out where people can easily access it.”

Motion light and other safety lighting are a good idea.

“With a motion light, if someone is on your property the light comes on and they don’t know if it’s a motion light or a property owner up and alert.”

Neighborliness is a good thing. “If you know someone is out of town keep watch for them. If you see a strange vehicle it could be someone breaking in.”

Get educated and get involved.

“The sheriff’s office is always asking for people’s help in providing information. We need it. And we have a crime prevention grant and we do provide crime prevention information to people, to clubs and civic groups and churches. They just need to call our office and arrange a time when we can meet with them.”