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Electrocuted bodies of 2 suspected wiring thieves found

The men were believed to be removing copper wire from an electrical box at an abandoned driving range in Riverside County. They were found after a fire at the site was put out.

June 03, 2009|Corina Knoll

The bodies of two men believed to have been electrocuted while stealing copper wiring were found early Tuesday on an abandoned driving range in Riverside County, authorities said.

San Jacinto police and county firefighters received a report of fireworks in the 900 block of Idyllwild Drive about 1:20 a.m., but instead discovered a fire near a transformer, said Deputy Herlinda Valenzuela of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

After extinguishing the fire, which took place at what used to be San Jacinto Golf Center, officials discovered the bodies. A spokeswoman with the coroner's office said the bodies were burned beyond recognition and would possibly be identified today.

"They were attempting to remove copper wire from inside what we call a pad-mount enclosure -- it's an electrical box or structure that contains high-voltage energized equipment," said Steve Conroy, a Southern California Edison spokesman.

The fire caused a 12,000-volt line connected to the circuit to go out of service, Conroy said, and about 1,600 residences in Hemet and San Jacinto were affected by a brief power outage.

Metal theft has plagued Southern California for more than a decade. Thieves cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage annually by swiping brass, copper and aluminum from city property, including fire hydrants, streetlights, wells and sprinklers.

A law intended to deter metal theft took effect in December and requires recycling centers to take a customer's photo, thumbprint and identification for every transaction over $20. After three days, a check is mailed, or the customer may return to pick up their payment.Barbara Messinger, owner of P&T Metals Inc. in South El Monte, said fewer people are bringing in scrap material, but attributes it to the economy. "There's not as many housing projects, people aren't building, so we aren't getting the scrap from that and a lot of the construction companies," she said.

She said copper was once especially attractive to thieves because it fetched nearly $4 per pound. But, she said, most recyclers now offer only $1.50.

Because prices for the metal have plummeted, the attempted theft in San Jacinto was "unusual," said Dennis Gutierrez of the Sheriff's Department.

"Before, we were literally in a daily fight with crooks stealing brass, copper and bronze," he said. "This year has seen a drastic drop. We don't get the calls we used to."

Conroy said Edison has taken steps to mitigate metal theft, including installing surveillance. He said he hopes that the recent deaths discourage other thieves.

"It's obviously a very tragic incident and one that is a terrible and unfortunate reminder to people to stay out of high-voltage facilities," he said.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com

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