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Sheriff: Metal theft now an ‘epidemic’ in county

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of September 15, 2011)
Photo: Keith Taig, owner of Mr. Scrap Incorporated.

With scrap copper bringing near record prices and unemployment stubbornly high, Sheriff’s Office General Counsel James Harpring says metal theft is now an “epidemic” in Indian River County.

Thieves strike more than two times per day on average, according to the sheriff’s office, stripping wire and pipe out of empty houses, stealing valuable air conditioner parts from occupied homes or taking other metal items.

Harvest Food and Outreach Center and the Vero Beach Bridge Center, where many island residents play cards, both lost air conditioners this summer. Neither theft was covered by insurance.  Bridge club members paid $12,000 to replace that unit, according to a club spokesman.

Because of China’s voracious appetite for commodities and a reduction in mine investment during the worldwide recession, copper supplies have tightened dramatically, driving up the spot price of the metal from just over $1 in the summer of 2008 to more than $4 this summer.

During the same period, Indian River County’s unemployment rate more than doubled, from six per cent in April 2008 to nearly 14 per cent this fall, according to local non-profit Workforce Solutions.

Harpring said the Sherriff’s Office has arrested 57 people for dealing in stolen property in the past year, most for crimes involving metal, along with six others for using false identification at scrap yards.

“People are coming in here selling scrap so they can pay their electric bill or feed their kids,” said Keith Taig, owner of Mr. Scrap on 45th St., who pays $3.15 a pound for used copper pipe. “You wouldn’t believe the stories I hear.”

While thieves’ favorite targets are empty houses and air conditioners, which contain aluminum and copper fins and tubes, they also steal street signs, guard rails, manhole covers, funeral urns, mailboxes and catalytic converters.

An initial review of an ordinance aimed at catching thieves by increasing regulation of the scrap metal business turned into a contentious debate at a recent county commission meeting, with Harpring and Sheriff Deryl Loar on one side and half dozen scrap dealers on the other.

Loar wants a provision in the proposed ordinance to require dealers to pay for certain types of metal by check instead of cash, and to mail checks to a street address instead of handing them over at the scrap yard. He said the provision would make it harder for thieves to use false names and easier for deputies to find and arrest them.

The metal dealers said the provision is pointless and burdensome. They insisted that in accordance with state law, they already thoroughly document the identity of customers who show up with air conditioner parts or other frequently stolen items.

“We get everything but their DNA,” said Shannon Cook, president of Indian River Scrap Metal. “I want to help the sheriff’s department, but let’s not ruin our business doing it. You are talking about applying a lot of stress on us by doing this. Having to mail these checks would cause us all kinds of problems.

“You don’t want to punish the good people in the business while you go after the bad ones and there are a lot of good people doing scrap. I know people who live on the beach who are scrapping to pay their bills.”

With commissioners looking on and asking frequent questions, scrap dealers and law enforcement representatives took turns arguing their cases from the podium, taking occasional shots at each other.

Harpring said the dealers were only resisting more regulation because, by their own admission, they knew they were in some cases buying stolen goods and wanted to continue profiting from those transactions.

Scrap dealers said law enforcement was not following up on information already provided to them.

Taig said at least four times he detained suspicious metal sellers by ruse until police arrived, only to see the police let the suspected thieves walk away.

“We want to help out with this problem,” Taig said, “but we are not the police. The police need to go out and investigate these people and catch them in the act and arrest them.”

Taig also said that city and county police do not get along, implying that interagency rivalry interferes with police effectiveness in catching metal thieves.

Harpring said Taig had other reasons for being hostile to the sheriff’s department besides a dislike of regulation. Loar later added that Taig was previously arrested by his department for illegal activity.

“Catching metal thieves is high on our priority list,” Harpring said after the meeting. “If you track backward from the crime of selling stolen property, there most often are serious felonies being committed, such as burglaries. This activity poses a risk to the health and welfare of the community, especially when thieves break into occupied dwellings or active businesses. It also leads to other crimes, as when thieves use the money to buy illegal drugs.”

Convicting metal thieves is difficult because scrap copper and aluminum don’t have serial numbers or other identifying marks. Even if police know a certain amount and type of metal was just stolen and find someone with a matching load at a scrap yard, it is hard to prove it is the stolen material.

Investigation is also hampered because theft from foreclosed homes may not be discovered until weeks or months after the crime.

Scrap dealers said they are already doing their part to catch metal thieves.

Cook said he records every transaction on video, takes customers’ license plate numbers, photographs them, takes a thumbprint and scans their driver’s licenses. Metal sellers are required to sign a form stating they are the legitimate owner of the material they are recycling.

Loar said requiring dealers to pay by check and mail the checks to a street address will add “another layer in the law enforcement tool box” and help deputies’ track down and arrest thieves.

Dealers see it differently.

 “I don’t see how that is going to solve the problem,” said Taig. “We already get their whole life story, so what is writing a check going to add? They say this is just one more thing to help them, but how many ‘one more things’ are they going to put on us? 

“The people who are stealing are going to keep stealing whether they get a check or not, but the more they keep regulating it the less honest people are going to do it. Next thing you know, my 13 employees will be out of work along with everyone else.”

“The check thing is ridiculous,” said Cook.  “If we pay a thief with a check, they are going to take it to the nearest place they can find to cash it and be gone. A little store or check cashing place is no more qualified to see if IDs are fake then I am. We have all the technology a bank does.”

Metal dealers say if they don’t buy stolen material, thieves will go to other counties or sell to so-called “gypsies” who buy metal in parking lots and export it without any regulations. They say the information they collect gives police their best chance to catch thieves, a chance that would be lost if stolen material is sold elsewhere.

“Thieves don’t have the resources to go from county to county,” Loar counters, adding that, in any case, adjacent counties have regulations similar to the ones proposed here.

Current state law requires scrap dealers to pay by check in any transaction over $1,000 and to maintain records of all transactions. The proposed Indian River County ordinance would require dealers to pay by check when they buy more than 25 pounds of copper, which would be about $80 worth, and when buying items such as air conditioner parts and manhole covers.

The ordinance would also require them to transmit their records to the sheriff’s office within 24 hours and to have a fax machine capable of receiving stolen property notifications.

During the meeting, commissioners seemed to be swayed by scrap metal dealers on the check-mailing issue but Loar still hopes to see the provision included in the ordinance and will be back to argue his point in the formal public hearing in early October.

The scrap dealers plan to be there too.

“Definitely,” said Cook.