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To thieves, it's as good as gold

Police say it's desperate meth users who are stripping building sites, phone poles and power boxes of copper wire.

March 14, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Fueled by methamphetamine and working like termites, they have blacked out entire neighborhoods, stripped building sites and reduced telephone poles to splintered wood.

Whether at a school, business or hospital, the thieves' quarry is always the same: copper.

Over the last few months, copper-wire thefts have skyrocketed statewide and across the nation. Although copper has long been a target of those desperate for quick cash, the price of the metal -- which has climbed as high as $4 a pound -- and plentiful construction sites in growth areas such as the Inland Empire are driving the current crime wave. As of Tuesday, copper was selling at about $2.82 a pound.

"In two months' time, we lost $25,000 worth of wire from the land we own in Fontana," said Michael Mendonca, who runs a recycling center. "We had people coming in every night ripping out wire. I would put chains on the gate, and they would cut through them. They didn't care what damage they caused; they just wanted enough for their next fix."

Thieves have shown remarkable tenacity digging up buried phone cables, stripping power-generating windmills of wire and making off with 1,000-pound spools of copper.

Police say they burn off the insulation and take it to recycling plants, where they are paid cash. Most of the metal is shipped to recyclers in Los Angeles, and within 24 hours, authorities say, it's bound for China, which, like India, has an enormous appetite for copper to wire its rapidly developing economy.

Riverside Police Det. Charles Payne said the thefts represented a serious public safety issue. Hospitals are affected when phone lines go down. Burglar alarms don't work, and 911 calls can't be made, he said.

"Any time you have someone messing with the power grid, it's dangerous," he said. "This is a very large problem, and it's growing."

Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle has met with AT&T and Verizon executives to discuss the problem.

"The thieves are getting more sophisticated," said Sgt. Dennis Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. "We had some come out from Walnut to strip wire from windmills in the desert. They are driving around in white vans so people think they are workers."

Gutierrez said telephone poles were being cut down with chain saws and wire stolen.

"The one common denominator we have noticed is that they are meth users," he said investigators had concluded. "They are awake at all times, walking around like zombies."

Similar robberies of copper have occurred nationwide. In Minnesota, 22,000 pounds of copper was stolen in one night recently. Last month, a thief in Irvine ripped out $20,000 worth of copper wire from a building undergoing renovation.

Verizon spokesman Jon Davies said the company had lost $297,795 in copper since 2006 in California alone, not including money spent on work to replace the wire or loss of service to customers.

"This is a national problem," he said. "We try to keep our cables high on the poles to make it harder to get, but the people who do this are highly motivated, and they have the equipment to get at it."

On a good night, a criminal can easily make more than $1,000. In remote Painted Hills in the Coachella Valley, $10,000 worth of wire was taken from a single windmill. Suspects were later caught.

In August, San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies arrested a Newberry Springs couple they say had stripped 10,000 pounds of copper from an Edison solar plant in Daggett over a three-month period and had sold it for $16,000.

In Adelanto, deputies recently found a man suffering severe electrical burns to his hands. They said he had cut into a live wire while breaking into a Southern California Edison box. Not only did he seriously injure himself, but he also blew out transformers, which sparked numerous brush fires, deputies said.

Others have had arms and legs blown off by live wires, and in one case a man was electrocuted while climbing inside a generator trying to steal copper, according to San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies.

The Riverside Unified School District has been hit 10 times since January, losing nearly $60,000 in wire. The air-conditioning units were targeted.

"The large copper cable that feeds them is exposed and on the rooftop," said Mike Fine, deputy superintendent. "Classrooms have been disrupted, and we have had to move kids to other rooms. They had no lights, no nothing. This is money right out of the school's pocket."

Fontana, Bloomington and Rancho Cucamonga have had a flurry of metal thefts.

"We are getting hammered by it," said Det. Maggie Finneran of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. "It's big here because of all the construction, and you have scads and scads of copper wire. Two weeks ago we had a ring of guys stealing irrigation pipes from agriculture land. A lot are small-scale [methamphetamine users] getting $300 or $400 a day. Recyclers often turn a blind eye, even though they are required to ask where it came from."

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