Wire fire signals theft of copper

Posted April 21, 2009, at 8:21 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:22 p.m.

LINCOLN, Maine — A small fire off U.S. Route 2 late Sunday has left investigators with a smoldered pile of plastic and copper and some new insight into how stolen metals are rendered traceless, Police Chief William Flagg said Tuesday.

Firefighters and police believed they were going to a grass or forest fire in South Lincoln off Route 2 near Pollard Brook at about 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Instead, they found a crude smelting operation — an attempt to melt plastic insulation from a large pool of copper wire by soaking it with a flammable liquid and burning the wire in a small sand pit. The material was buried shortly before police and firefighters arrived, Flagg said.

The problem, Flagg said, is that investigators haven’t yet traced the copper to any recent thefts. Police believe the wire came from an industrial source, possibly an area mill, and are contacting local businesses and other police agencies statewide to see whether they can match the copper to a crime.

“All the indications to us at this point are that the wire was likely stolen,” Flagg said Tuesday. “We have found evidence of what we believe is a crime. We just have not found where it took place.”

Police also found and questioned a man who they believe fled the scene in a pickup truck just before police and firefighters arrived, Flagg said. Flagg said he did not know how much the wire is worth.

Prices for copper, steel, iron, aluminum and other industrial metals have risen dramatically in recent years due in large part to increasing demand and surging energy costs, leading to a similar statewide rise in the theft of those metals, particularly from industrial sites, police around the state have reported.

In response, Maine legislators created a law last year requiring scrap metal dealers to record names and addresses of sellers who offer more than 100 pounds or $50 worth of metal.

Some thefts have been downright ingenious. In December 2007, someone stole nearly 4 miles of underground copper wire used to power lights along one of Portland’s walking trails. Police speculated that the job was so complicated — and dangerous — that the thief or thieves likely had some electrical training.

Camp owners have found the copper piping used to run their gas lamps or refrigerators gone. Catalytic converters have been stolen from cars. Even aluminum bleachers — from stadiums in Corinth and Levant — have been targeted.

But this is the first time town police have found a smelting site, Flagg said.

This leads them to wonder whether more sites are located in the Lincoln Lakes region, which is about an hour from the Bangor-Old Town area, where the increased population makes metal thefts more numerous and such outdoor activities less likely.

“This is a different twist than we are used to seeing,” Flagg said.

The uniqueness of the smelting operation, some circumstances surrounding the call and the late hour the sand pit was discovered caused investigators to opt to wait until the area could be examined by a state police forensic evidence technician on Monday, Flagg said.

Firefighters used an infrared camera Sunday to detect the burning, below-ground mass, but the camera could not detect precisely what it was, Flagg said.

Anyone with information on the stolen copper is asked to call police at 794-8455.

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