Good as Gold: Thieves Strip Metal from Buildings


APPLE VALLEY, Calif., Nov. 19, 2006 — -- The urbanization of the desert has created a housing boom in this valley east of Los Angeles. New home developments line freshly paved streets in what used to be the middle of nowhere.

But even though no one is living here yet, there is already heavy security.

As carpenters busily frame three- and four-bedroom homes, and plumbers lay copper ground lines, patrol cars circle and remote control cameras keep watch from telephone poles. They are not here for the future residents. They are protecting the unfinished homes and the "treasures" within.

Building materials have become a hot commodity for thieves.

Guy Crest lost 600 feet of copper tubing while his house was being built. With the price of scrap copper at a record high of more than three dollars a pound, his construction site was a tempting target for thieves.

"That one little theft cost me $1,000 to replace the copper," he says.

But the delays created were even more expensive. Without the copper tubing, contractors couldn't work.

"That cost three to four grand more," he says.

Crest, like other builders big and small, spends thousands of dollars on security equipment. A surveillance camera, high-intensity lighting and chain-link fencing now surround his home.

But Sheriff Jeff Soloman of the San Bernardino County Sheriff Department says it probably won't help.

"They'll steal the chain link fence from around the building," he says. "Anything they can scrap, they'll take."

Recent industrial demand, especially in India and China, has dramatically driven up the price of scrap metal. A two-ton bale of copper wire and tubing at a recycling center in Portland recently brought more than $10,000.

"These are prices that we've never seen before," says Chuck Carr of the Recycling Institute.

Scrap aluminum, steel, zinc and copper are so valuable that it seems no construction site is safe anywhere. In Baltimore, thieves stole 130 lamp posts. In Tucson, two miles of high voltage copper lines were ripped from power poles. Pittsburgh lost 400 parking meters. A copper dome was removed from a Cleveland church. One hundred forty-four copper vents were torn off a high school roof in suburban Portland.

"We didn't know anything was wrong until the heavy rains came," says Principal John Hines.

But there is equal determination on the other side, as contractors use imagination to thwart thieves.

Apple Valley plumbing contractor Chris Hitt paints his copper plumbing lines bright yellow. That way "the scrap yard knows that it's my copper," he says.

Recyclers who receive the "tagged" copper turn the information over to police, along with the seller's identification.

"They have to provide ID," says Matt Haslett, a recycler in Portland. "If they will not provide ID, we will not purchase the scrap."

A new computerized notification system has also been introduced to alert dealers across the country to stolen metal.

It may look like junk, but to thieves scrap metal has become as good as gold.

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