Rising cost of copper has made it a jewel of Madison County thieves
BY BEN MUNRO
Local thieves are certainly keeping up with national trends.
Madison County Sheriff’s Office Captain Mike Benner estimates that copper thefts in Madison County have at least doubled perhaps even tripled in the last three years, given the soaring price of the material.
That added value has made copper theft a popular option for those looking to support a substance addition, usually to methamphetamines.
“It’s kind of pulled those folks into a different way of trying to support their habit,” Benner said.
Copper theft incidents and arrests are often in the county crime reports. In fact, Madison County authorities, with assistance from the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office, recently nabbed two men suspected of copper wire thefts from Georgia Power substations in Carlton. Thieves will swipe copper pipe and wiring from a variety of places new homes, job sites, utility companies or anywhere else copper can be salvaged and sell to it scrap yards.
Thieves go to great lengths to get their hands on copper, even putting their own lives at risk.
According to Benner, there have been reports of electrocution deaths in instances where thieves were trying to cut wires and get into power boxes.
But at $3 a pound, the criminals are highly motivated to take copper to the scrap yards.
Rather than taking the time to strip wire, thieves are simply burning the casing now to reach the copper quicker. Burn pits are often common at sites where the Madison County Sheriff’s Office have issued search warrants in cases of copper theft.
In fact, Benner said burn pits were uncovered during searches involving the case of the alleged Georgia Power substation thieves and in another case on Piedmont Road.
“They’re burning it (the casing) off and taking the burnt wire copper in,” Benner.
Benner said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of what the scrap yards do to try to determine who is selling stolen copper, but said those businesses play a role in helping police catch perpetrators.
“They cooperate with law enforcement … We’re very appreciative of their efforts,” Benner said.
As for punishment, Benner notes that additional penalties are being added to deter copper thieves.
The men who allegedly vandalized the sub-stations face environmental charges through the Department of Natural for dumping 2,400 gallons of oil into the ground. Total damages and clean-up costs in that case will total around $1 million.
“That’s getting really drastic when they’re getting into stuff like that,” Benner said of the oil spill.
Those burning wiring for copper can be charged for an environmental crime in addition to theft.
HOMES ARE A TARGET
Benner said that people have noticed that their heat wasn’t working only to discover that copper thieves had struck.
“They did a little checking and look outside and their heat pump is gone,” he said.
Houses are often a sought-after target of copper thieves, especially empty homes.
Another by-product of the housing slowdown has been an increase in the vandalism of vacant homes since they sit full of copper pipe and wiring.
“They’re just there for the picking,” Benner said.
But county law enforcement has been able to counter that trend somewhat with some recent arrests, Benner said.
And he said the increase of copper thefts in the county has slowed down with a few key thieves behind bars.
“Generally, if we catch the right few guys, if we keep them in jail, we see those thefts really slow down,” Benner said.