Police say high scrap metal prices attractive to thieves

Posted April 24, 2011, at 1:28 p.m.
Last modified April 24, 2011, at 2:27 p.m.

Vacant homes are a target and the criminal scrappers who are breaking into them to steal water, heating and other pipes are not waiting until the cover of night, local law enforcement are warning.

“People are taking anything that is not bolted down, and taking stuff that is bolted down,” Trooper Jarod Stedman said last week.

Maine State Police troopers in Orono-based Troop E, which covers Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, have been busy this month investigating scrap metal thefts all over the region.

“People aren’t stealing to put food on the table,” Stedman said. “People are stealing to support their drug habit.”

Whenever the price of gas and oil increases, so does the price of metal and that means recycled scrap metal sells for more. On Friday, stripped copper was selling for $3.25 a pound at OneSteel Recycling in Bangor, and the local company was purchasing brass at $1.90 a pound, aluminium for 50 cents, lead for 35 cents, and black iron was $260 a ton.

The allure of the easy money is just too much for some criminals, Deputy Chief Troy Morton of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department said Friday.

“It’s a quick way to get quick cash,” he said. “People don’t have serial numbers on pipes in their houses” so the stolen pipes “are not easily traced.”

Many of those caught with stolen scrap metal have admitted they were trying to get money for illegal drugs, Morton said.

“Very common” is how he described the crime, adding that most often hit are “abandoned houses or barns and places like that.”

“We’ve experienced people going into these places during the day and it doesn’t look out of the ordinary,” Morton said. “It just continues to be a problem. It’s not a particular area, it’s all over the county. I know our other counterparts are dealing with the same issue.”

The burglars are conniving as well as brazen, Stedman said.

“They’re riding around scoping these places out,” he said. “We see it a lot with houses that are foreclosed on or when people have moved out or even new construction.”

For the most part, the scrappers who are breaking the law target empty homes, but not all the time, Morton said.

“This is not just vacant properties,” he said. “These are people’s homes.” In some instances, people have gone to work or gone away for the weekend, and “they’ve come home to pipes and wires being removed,” the deputy chief said.

Lt. Wesley Hussey, commanding officer for Troop E, listed a number of scrap metal thefts in his Troop E Highlights for April.

“With the price of scrap metal on the rise, so are the scrap metal theft calls for service,” he posted in last week’s list.

In early April, Trooper Brenda Coolen was sent to a residence in Carmel that was stripped of its copper pipe. The home had been unoccupied since March.

Trooper Brian Bean investigated the theft of scrap metal stolen from a construction site in Enfield on April 13, and ended up charging Shane Smith, 23, of Howland with theft after he allegedly took a 74-foot-long steel pipe.

Trooper Christopher Foxworthy also is looking into a burglary to a camp in Greenbush where the aluminum siding was removed and other items were stolen.

A high number of thefts in recent years spurred state legislators in 2008 to create a paper trail for people selling items to scrap metal processors. The law requires processors to “maintain an accurate and legible record of each scrap metal purchase transaction that exceeds 100 pounds or $50,” and that they pay sellers with checks to “maintain a record.”

The law has helped with tracking down criminals, but “it’s definitely not the fix-all to all of it,” Morton said. “There are always ways to get around it. There is definitely not a perfect answer to it.”

Both Stedman and Morton said area recycling businesses regularly work with them to solve crimes. The officers also said the best deterrent is watchful neighbors.

“Unless someone is detected doing it” the chances of catching the burglars is slight, the trooper said.

If someone sees a strange vehicle at a neighbor’s empty home, “We could use their help with a phone call or a plate number,” Stedman said.

Morton added, “Don’t be afraid to report things.”

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