Copper thieves target homes for sale, utilities, construction sites

Editor’s note: The following story first appeared in Vermont Property Owners Report, a bimonthly newsletter, published in Montpelier, that focuses on taxes, legal matters, market trends and other issues of importance to Vermont property owners.

When Tropical Storm Irene struck Northfield last summer, it set the Dog River on a rampage, pushing water over banks and damaging dozens of homes in the modest neighborhood of Water Street.

The place, like many river neighborhoods across Vermont last August, became a muddy mess. Distraught residents lost valuable belongings, and many homes were structurally damaged, with a dozen wrecked so badly they are to be demolished.

In the weeks following the flood a burglar was busy. In the dead of night and carrying tools and a duffel bag, the intruder broke into a number of the vacated homes, through basement windows and back doors, and methodically removed every copper pipe and tubing and fitting he could carry.

Copper pipes

Copper piping in empty homes is often the target of thieves who sell it to scrap metal dealers. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

“It was a guy who had come up from North Carolina and had stayed at a girlfriend’s house, and had seen an opportunity,” says Northfield Police Chief Chris Outgun. In one home a furnace valve was broken, and fuel oil spilled across the basement floor, requiring a costly cleanup.

The police did their job: They alerted Bolduc Auto Salvage, a scrap-metal dealer in Middlesex, identified some of the copper, and, with Bolduc’s help, tracked down suspect. The man faces eight counts of burglary and theft.

The arrest was unusual, but the crime wasn’t.

Across Vermont, indeed the country, thefts of copper and other valuable non-ferrous metals have increased dramatically, and thieves too often are finding that crime pays. They’re hitting homes, vacant commercial buildings, camps, construction sites, warehouses, utilities, any place that has or might have copper. In April, thieves in East Dover cut down 800 feet of live telephone wires; police were alerted after a phone outage report.

Older homes are especially attractive to thieves because water, drainage and heating pipes can all be copper. One plumber said a thief might be able to get 50 to 100 pounds of copper from an older home.

As with the fuel-oil spill in Northfield, thieves also are causing collateral damage, as they rip tubing from walls or appliances or damage buildings during forced entries. In thefts at electric substations, they are endangering lives.

“Virtually every utility in Vermont is facing this problem of copper theft,” says Steve Costello, a spokesman for Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest electric utility. “We are seeing people going through recycling bins on our property, taking valuable scrap; they are stealing wire off reels, and we have even seen cases where thieves have cut live wires at substations and utility poles,” a dangerous practice.

In response to the copper crimes, the Vermont Legislature passed a law this year (H.699) that officials hope will make it tougher for thieves to sell their loot and easier for police to track them down. The law does this by requiring better record keeping by scrap-metal dealers, to help with any police investigation.

In response to the copper crimes, the Vermont Legislature passed a law this year (H.699) that officials hope will make it tougher for thieves to sell their loot and easier for police to track them down.

The law does this by requiring better record keeping by scrap-metal dealers, to help with any police investigation (it exempts auto-salvage yards because they deal mostly with ferrous metals).

The measure won’t solve the problem, officials concede, but it may force some would-be thieves to think twice. “The new law will add a tool to the arsenal of law enforcement, and it will give hope to residents and businesses,” says an author of the legislation, Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland. Russell says he introduced the bill because of an epidemic of copper thefts in his city. “It is something the state police really wanted,” Russell said.

Officials say the thefts of copper started rising three or four years ago as the value of copper to be recycled began rising from 60 cents a pound to about $4. The price reflected increased demand worldwide, especially in China and India, though the price has declined some recently.

State police don’t have numbers that show, specifically, an increase in copper thievery, but there’s an abundance of anecdotal evidence from them and other police agencies around the state that copper is highly valued by crooks.

 “Some people have come here trying to sell only two, three or four pounds of copper,” says Irv Mac, owner of Mac Equipment & Steel Co., a salvage yard of Rutland, who adds such behavior suggests a need for money fast. “I have had customers arrive at 7 in the morning, barely able to put a coherent sentence together or stop their hands from shaking.”

Vermont authorities say most of the crimes are being committed by lone-wolf thieves, as probably was the case in Northfield, but also, occasionally, by small rings of burglars.

“One thing we are finding is that many of these crimes involve some kind of drug dependency; we are looking at cocaine and heroin … any type of drug that’s addictive,” says Keith Flynn, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state police.

“Some people have come here trying to sell only two, three or four pounds of copper,” says Irv Mac, owner of Mac Equipment & Steel Co., a salvage yard of Rutland, who adds such behavior suggests a need for money fast.

“I have had customers arrive at 7 in the morning, barely able to put a coherent sentence together or stop their hands from shaking,” says Mac.

He says has had to take security measures to protect his own place of business. “Forty years ago I could leave material outside; now I would have to be out of my mind to do that,” he said.

At Smalley’s Contractors, a general contractor in Rutland, the message was similar. Owner Ernie Smalley reports his company experienced four break-ins last summer in which several thousands of dollars worth of copper was stolen.

He says, though, that word may have gotten out on the street that authorities are “trying to strengthen up” and are pressing the salvage yards to become “gatekeepers.” The reason? Burglars are taking other things from his company, like computers and checks.

Smalley likes the new law, but he says it’s not the whole answer, and worries about the responsibility it places on scrap recyclers. The measure requires scrap dealers to ask for and record ID information from a seller and to review documentation before buying the metal, such as receipts or bills of sales.

If the seller can’t provide such information, the dealer, after buying the copper, must notify the Department of Public Safety by the following business day. He or she also must hang on to the copper for at least 10 days before reselling it. The scrap dealer also is required to keep the sales and ID information for five years.

Finally, the law states that any dealer who knowingly or recklessly buys or in any way aids in concealing stolen property will be punished as if he had stolen it.

Herb Russell

Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland, was the author of legislation passed during the last session that aims to make it tougher for thieves to sell scrap metal.

Russell views the scrap dealers’ new responsibility as part of a new “collaborative effort” with police, which will protect the dealers themselves and other businesses and homeowners.

He said he was inspired to introduce the bill after thieves struck an old Victorian home two blocks from his house and “cleaned so much copper out,” that the frustrated homeowner, unwilling to pay for repairs, tore the home down.

“Now there’s just a barren lot,” and whatever is built next, if anything, has “the potential of changing the very fabric of the neighborhood,” he said.

Russell says copper theft is harming the local real estate market. “Damage to a home can be in the thousands, to the point where the amount compromises a sale, as the owner has to either fix things or sell at a dropped price.”

He says in Rutland sellers are being advised not to put “For Sale” signs on their front lawn, a signal to thieves the house might be vacant. “I have heard from several Realtors about this; they are alarmed,” Russell said.

Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais freelance writer and editor.

Dirk Van Susteren

Comments

  1. Ron Pulcer :

    Thanks Dirk for this article. This is a national problem (just like drugs). I first heard about this happening in Detroit about 4-5 years ago (many abandoned buildings) from my relatives in the metro area. Sadly, it is spreading around the country and here in Vermont.

    In regards to comment by owner of Mac’s in Rutland, I can sympathize with the position they are in. But if someone has only 2-4 pounds of copper and looks very suspicious, don’t buy the copper from them! If no one buys back the copper from them, then “maybe” they will get the message (or go steal something else). But buying small quantities of copper from these folks just encourages them to steal more.

    ———————————————————-

    “Some people have come here trying to sell only two, three or four pounds of copper,” says Irv Mac, owner of Mac Equipment & Steel Co., a salvage yard of Rutland, who adds such behavior suggests a need for money fast.

    “I have had customers arrive at 7 in the morning, barely able to put a coherent sentence together or stop their hands from shaking,” says Mac.

  2. Cheryl Pariseau :

    I was in Jamaica this past spring and inquired to a local why there were so many cars and such abandoned. I asked him “Don’t you recycle scrap metal on the island?” He said that they used to but people where cutting live utility wires and stealing all the metals they could so they stopped recycling the items. Perhaps it is time to put a moratorium on copper scrap buying. Those who are legitimate recyclers will keep the items for the period of the moratorium, while those who are stealing it will not be able to make the quick buck. Or perhaps allow for only certain days for copper scrap to be bought. Then constructions sights and vacant homes would have a heads up to keep an eye for thieves the night before.

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