In August, thieves literally ripped off 100 feet of copper downspouts from the Burr Mansion, a 1790 historic landmark near the Fairfield Town Green. Estimated value of the stolen metal was $5,000. In separate incidents, copper thieves also hit the town’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, post office, Trinity Church in Southport and several homes.
After Tropical Storm Irene decimated waterfront properties, East Haven police arrested two men allegedly stealing copper piping from six damaged homes. The suspects were charged with burglary, criminal trespass, larceny and interfering with a police officer.
In Stamford, an investigation this year found that city and school employees received 209 cash payments totaling $16,472 from scrap-metal merchants Rubino Brothers from 2006 to 2010 for selling surplus city-owned snow-plow blades, traffic and street signs, street lights and aluminum building material. Funds were diverted to petty cash and city employee parties, according to the report. The inquiry found “no criminality” and no one was arrested.
Utility companies have experienced such a rise in copper and other metal theft that the Connecticut legislature has made it a felony when it causes an interruption in emergency telecommunication services. The penalty can include up to 10 years jail time and a $10,000 fine.
Over the past decade, the price of scrap metal—especially copper—has surged to meet construction demands in China and other nations. Copper jumped about 700 percent, from 65 cents a pound to a peak of more than $4.50 in mid-summer before dropping off a bit recently. Scrap steel prices also are up, but not as much as copper.
As prices escalate and joblessness remains a problem, police say exposed metal makes an inviting target for thieves.
In several cases, local police sharing information and intelligence have tracked down and arrested metal thieves. In Southington, two Stratford men were arrested earlier this year and charged with theft of $120,000 in scrap metal from a Southington manufacturing company. Police also arrested four suspects from nearby communities in a June theft of $3,000 in scrap metal from a vacant Southington home.
“It’s not uncommon for towns in Connecticut to have scrap-metal thefts,” Southington Sgt. Lowell DePalma says. “People steal scrap because it’s easy to get and there are buyers for it.” North Branford Detective Ron Onofrio says dealers routinely buy scrap unless they know it is stolen. “When someone comes in with a pickup truck filled with metal, the scrap dealer doesn’t have any clue where the metal comes from,” he says. “What they don’t know they can’t prove. That’s the tough part in trying to stop scrap-metal theft.”
Under Connecticut law, scrap dealers must keep records of metal received, a description, weight, price paid and identification of the person who delivered it, along with a photo of the delivery vehicle and license plate. Dealers have occasionally been fined for failing to maintain documentation, but amazingly, not a single arrest has been reported.
State Police Lt. Paul Vance says, “Law-abiding dealers keep proper records and identities of the people who sell scrap metals. This alone should be a great deterrent to the theft problem.” Should be, but obviously isn’t.
“There are some unscrupulous dealers out there who are knowingly breaking the law and need to be held accountable for their actions,” says Jerry Green of JW Green Co., scrap-metal recyclers in Plainville. “The laws that exist are adequate, but it is enforcement that is lacking.”
Green, New England chapter president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which has more than 11,000 members, points to the institute’s website, ScrapTheftAlert.com. There, law enforcement officers post photos and information on metal thefts so that scrap dealers can watch for stolen items. The system sends an alert to members within a 100-mile radius.
“On average we get approached about once a month to buy material that appears to be stolen,” says Green. “Because we are diligent in our buying process—we require driver’s license identification, we have cameras photographing the purchase of material and we ask questions—I suspect that we would not be the scrap yard of choice for someone looking to sell stolen material.”
But there’s apparently no lack of places that would be.