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Copper theft on the rise

17 October 2008 No Comment

Story and Photos by Tyler Sipe

Copper metal has become the new gold standard in the underground economy.

Fremont and other East Bay cities have seen a dramatic increase in copper theft, especially since the commodity has risen above $3 a pound.

Fremont Police Detective Bill Veteran said the theft of copper and other metals has reached epidemic proportions, and said he believes most of the offenders in the Tri-City area are drug addicts.

“With any dope abuser, they need money and they need it quick,” said Veteran, who’s been an officer for 23 years. “It’s really a crime of opportunity and the reason I think they’re stealing is because the chance of confrontation with somebody is pretty remote.”

The Fremont Police Department does not keep official records documenting the number of thefts involving stolen metals, or the number of arrests made in association with stolen metals. But Veteran said the department gets several calls a week from people reporting stolen copper, aluminum and brass objects.

Miguel Belasquez, a foreman with MCON Construction, removes partially destroyed copper wires from the Niles Square housing development. Belasquez said thieves have targeted the site on numerous occasions, targeting higher priced metals like copper.

 

“(They) can steal 20-pound brass fittings and it’s a lot more profitable than picking up aluminum cans and recycling them,” Veteran said. “So (copper and brass) is unfortunately becoming a commodity of choice.”

Veteran said locals have reported sewer covers, metal plaques, sculptures and even a copper urn stolen from area properties.

According to Veteran, the most popular target for metal thieves are construction sites.

Todd Jegglie, a superintendent with Standard Pacific Homes, has been laboring on the 40-unit Niles Square housing development in Fremont for more than two years.

In that time, Jegglie said Niles Square, featuring $500,000 three-bedroom homes, has been hit by thieves on six different occasions, the last theft occurring two weeks ago.

Thieves are attracted to Niles Square because each residential unit contains about $4,000 in copper wire and plumbing.

“It’s incredibly frustrating for us,” Jegglie said. “(Thieves) will rip the whole house apart, even when families (are) ready to close in on a housing deal in two weeks.”

Jegglie said the problem of metal theft has forced construction workers and developers to think creatively in hiding expensive construction material, including burying metal products a foot underground. Some developers have also installed cameras on site or hired security guards.

However, Jegglie said security officers cost more than $8,000 a month and would not be economical for smaller developments like Niles Square.

“It’s going to continue regardless,” Jegglie said. “(Thieves) know there’s money (in stealing metal) and there’s no way of stopping them.”

Nationwide, theft of copper and other metals is estimated to cost $1 billion a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Despite the growing problem, few have solutions in curtailing metal theft.

Officer Veteran said despite the epidemic, police departments can’t devote time and resources to a crime that is hard to solve since material often doesn’t have tracking numbers.

“It’s not an extremely high priority for us,” Veteran said. “We don’t have five or 6 detectives chasing down copper wire.

“If something is unique enough, we’ll go investigate it. But it’s tough, because you can’t tell what’s stolen.”

 

It costs approximately $300 for 100-feet of copper wire.  The Niles Square development has about $4,000 of copper in each residential unit, making it and similar sites, popular for metal bandits.

It costs approximately $300 for 100-feet of copper wire. The Niles Square development has about $4,000 of copper in each residential unit, making it and similar sites, popular for metal bandits.

Veteran and Jegglie agree recycling facilities need to be more cautious in purchasing stolen metals from thieves.

Richard Valle, president of Tri-CED community recycling in Union City, decided the only way to avoid purchasing metal which may have been stolen.

“In previous years, we got material from homeowners or contractors in small quantities,” said Valle, who has owned Tri-CED since 1980. “Then about five years ago, people began bringing in huge quantities and their stories didn’t make sense.

Valle said people often turned in spools of unused copper, and to him, it was a sign that the metal was stolen.

“We got out (of buying metals) because we didn’t want to be in the business of buying stolen goods.”

But, for some East Bay residents, selling metals legally is how they put food on the table or fill their gas tanks.

Fremont resident Charlie Miller, 60, scavenges the city for aluminum products, looking for cans, chairs, hub caps and other material.

Miller, who is disabled, said he uses the money to fill up his gas tank, which costs about $30.

“I don’t make nothing,” said Miller, of recycling aluminum. “Just enough to pay for my gas.”

But even in the underground world of metal scavenging, Miller knows the value of copper.

“Copper is like gold.”

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