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Copper Wire Thefts Leave Desert Towns High and Dry

September 22, 1989|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE — International jewel thieves they are not. But a pesky band of burglars has caused a heap of trouble for a string of remote desert towns this summer, stealing miles of the copper telephone wires that link the outposts with the rest of the world.

Lured by the high price of copper, thieves have stolen about 55 miles of the multistrand bare wire in San Bernardino County and another 80 miles of wire in Riverside County.

The wire--either snagged from the ground and tugged down with ropes or clipped by thieves who shinny up telephone poles--is sold to salvage yards, which pay up to $1.04 a pound for copper. In San Bernardino County, the thieves made off with more than $100,000 worth of wire, authorities said.

The unusual burglaries there have left homes and businesses in the towns of Ludlow, Amboy, Cadiz and Danby without phone service periodically since early August, with some residents cut off for as long as a month.

In Riverside County, a copper line stretching between Whitewater and Desert Center was stolen. Few telephones were affected, but the theft cut service to a Cactus City rest stop telephone on Interstate 10 that is the only one within a 40-mile radius.

"We've had wire thefts before, but not on this scale," said Riverside County Sheriff's Detective Mark Barfnecht.

Buster Burris, 79, elder statesman and sole owner of the privately held community of Amboy, said townsfolk for weeks were forced to drive to Twentynine Palms, 50 miles away, to make telephone calls.

"The phones are our lifeline, and it's just been terrible, what with all the wrecks we get on the highway out here," said Burris, who runs a cafe, motel and gas station in Amboy, population 24.

"We had one truck turn over on Amboy Road and the driver lay there for an extra hour and a half with a broken back while somebody drove to Twentynine Palms to call for help. These crooks left us high and dry. We're about ready to get out the shotguns," he said.

Businesses--reliant on telephones to receive orders and call for supplies--also have suffered.

"It's been a real pain for us because we need to talk to our sales office every day to get orders," said Lyndon Jones, plant superintendent at the Leslie Salt Co.'s salt mine at Bristol Dry Lake. "I finally set up a two-way radio and had them phone orders to my wife in Twentynine Palms, who would then radio them to me."

Initially, Pacific Bell officials were hindered in their efforts to restring the wire both by a lack of available supplies--not much copper wire is made any more--and a recent strike, which coincided with the peak of the thefts. On some occasions, workers replaced the wire and restored service only to have thieves strike again the very next day.

"You'd have a phone when you went to bed and you'd wake up and it would be out again," said Felicitas Ortiz, 56, who works at the general store in tiny Cadiz.

Because of the troubles, Pacific Bell decided to link the area's telephones to a more modern microwave communication system, eliminating the need for the uninsulated wiring that, for the most part, is used by the company only in rural areas. Terry Kressel, Pacific Bell supervisor for the desert area, said the affected towns will be on an emergency radio system until the microwave connections are completed in November.

Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, have been tracking the thieves with mixed success. Because the areas vandalized are so remote, alarms that Pacific Bell attaches to the wire do little good; by the time authorities arrive, the thieves are gone or hiding in the desert.

So, in San Bernardino County, reserve Sheriff's Deputy Richard Bunn decided a stakeout was in order, and parked one recent night in an area having fresh truck tracks. Sure enough, the burglars appeared. There was a high-speed chase across the desert, which ended when the thieves' truck got stuck in the sand.

Five men from Riverside County communities were ultimately arrested in that episode. One has pleaded guilty and the other four will stand trial in Barstow on Nov. 6 on charges of grand theft and possessing stolen property--both felonies--and misdemeanor interruption of a telecommunication line. They face up to four years in custody if convicted on all counts.

Investigators said they believe the thieves in the two counties were part of the same loosely organized group, hitting first in Riverside County and later in San Bernardino County.

Despite these successes, authorities worry that the value of scrap metals makes other desert areas served by bare copper telephone wire vulnerable to attack. And in Riverside County, other burglars have begun stealing everything from aluminum guard rails on freeways to metal bleachers at Little League fields near Palm Springs.

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