Police struggle to nab copper thieves - The Explorer: News

Police struggle to nab copper thieves

Stealing copper an unsafe way to make illegal cash, says PD

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Posted: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 3:00 am

Stealing copper happens often, and catching the suspects is difficult for investigators in what continues to be a problem nationwide.

In the last 14 months, the Oro Valley Police Department has had 16 cases of copper theft.

Of those cases, Lt. John Teachout, a spokesman for the department, said they have only made two arrests.

“This is a random crime that occurs all over the place,” he said. “Suspects are stealing copper from construction sites, ball fields and overhead lighting in parking lots. It’s hard to find a suspect when it’s so random.”

The most recent arrest came in October. The Oro Valley police arrested a male subject after a town employee observed a person acting suspiciously near Cañada Del Oro Riverfront Park.

After arresting the suspect, officers discovered the man is also a suspect in several copper thefts that have occurred over the last year in Tucson, Teachout said.

Oro Valley is currently working with Tucson police to prosecute the suspect.

The lieutenant noted it was by luck that they recently arrested a second suspect. However, he was captured before he attempted to steal copper from a local Target, and was only charged only with trespassing.

Copper thefts are not limited to Oro Valley; police in Marana and the City of Tucson continue to deal with the problem.

In August, about a half-dozen Oro Valley businesses along Oracle Road reported their air conditioners weren’t working. Repairmen inspecting the units found the copper tubing was missing from the A/C units.

In mid-October, while Tucson police searched for a suspect, baseball and softball players from Juhan Park were forced to find an alternate location to play after the ballfield’s lighting was broken due to copper thefts.

In Marana, police are still investigating an incident on Oct. 20 where thieves tried to cut open the refrigeration system on the outside of a Fry’s supermarket.

Sgt. Tim Brunenkant, a spokesman for the Marana Police Department, said the copper tubing was cut or punctured, and the suspects quickly found out it was also filled with a pressurized refrigerant.

While the thieves got away, the cost to Fry’s to repair the damage was estimated around $28,000.

Copper thieves appear to be willing to put themselves in so much danger to get so few dollars, Teachout said. It leaves police officers scratching their heads.

“It’s just not a safe and efficient way to make illegal money, yet we have problems with it happening everywhere,” he said.

Police say the case is hard to crack; however, public awareness could help to not only catch suspects, but also let thieves know they can’t get away with crimes here.

“It’s really hard to make arrests unless we have a witness,” Teachout said. “This town employee that helped us was being vigilant.”

Residents are asked to be on alert for suspicious behavior in areas copper thieves may target.

Some of those areas include air conditioning units, ball fields, construction sites, street lighting, overhead lighting in parking lots and any kind of infrastructure that delivers water or electricity.

Copper thieves are so willing to steal for the money, Teachout said, that they often attempt to take the copper from live electrical lines.

Another problem, according to authorities, is finding where these thieves are selling the stolen copper. Under state law, scrap metal buyers are supposed to collect ID and finger prints from copper sellers who sell more than $25 worth of copper.

If a suspect is caught, Teachout said the punishment varies by the amount of copper stolen.

If the value is worth less than $1,000, it’s a misdemeanor, and the Pima County Attorney will decide the level of punishment.

If the value exceeds $1,000, the suspect will likely face felony charges.

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