Copper is a hot commodity on Mesa's black market - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Copper is a hot commodity on Mesa's black market

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Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2010 6:30 am | Updated: 9:36 pm, Sun Jan 16, 2011.

Among the 5 C's of Arizona - Cattle, Citrus, Climate, Copper and Cotton - Copper once again is a hot commodity.

At least in Mesa it is, a hot item on the black market, causing police and city officials to review legislation regulating scrap yard businesses in an effort to hold them more accountable in the ways they purchase wiring and metals with untraceable origins.

The theft of copper wiring - as well as other metals throughout the city - again is on the rise as thieves target boxes of lighting fixtures at parks and even streetlights because of the premium it can bring in bulk amounts - $1.50 to $3 a pound for various types of copper and 75 cents to $1.50 a pound for brass, according to information from the Mesa yard of Arizona Recycling Corp.

This year in Mesa, 24 miles of wiring have been stolen,

Thieves, who often are stealing the metals to support a drug habit, not only are taking a chance on being arrested and going to jail, they risk being electrocuted from exposed wiring often caused by their quick actions of ripping it from an electrical box or tearing it from the ground, city officials say. Thieves also have targeted water back-flow devices for their brass along east Mesa basins that purify and re-process water. When these components are ripped out, it can cause thousands of gallons of water to be released before they are shut off.

"These thieves are becoming more brazen," said assistant Mesa police chief Mike Denney. "Wire thefts are going on all over the city. If a guy takes a whole spool of copper wire and sells it at a scrap yard, its origin is unidentifiable. If citizens see any suspicious activity in the neighborhood or people pulling wiring out of electrical boxes or streetlights, they need to call police. These people usually steal the wiring at night during a time when no one is around and city workers would not be repairing streetlights or working in parks."

Police said that both individuals and groups are pulling off thefts in all parts of the city, and city workers have built concrete boxes around various wire devices to better restrict thieves. The city also plans to place alarms on a number of streetlights and lighting fixtures at parks.

Police put a dent in wire thefts last week.

About 2 a.m. Thursday, Mesa police caught one man in the act of stripping wires from streetlights after a tip was called in by a neighborhood resident who saw two men stripping the wiring out of streetlights on the corner of St. Claire and East Simone Avenue near Signal Butte Road.

Police arrested Jason Whitehead, 29, on suspicion of aggravated criminal damage, and hours later, arrested Joseph Daughetee on suspicion of aggravated criminal damage and criminal trespass in connection to the crime.

Daughetee, 27, admitted to police that he was responsible for a number of wire thefts in the area and showed officers where he had ripped wires out of nearby streetlights, according to a police report.

Both Whitehead and Daughetee are ex-cons who spent time in an Arizona Department of Corrections prison for drug-related and other offenses, according to prison records.

Since 2003, police and city parks and transportation officials say the city has replaced about $1 million worth of wire stolen on street signals, park lights and even water purification devices. In the last five months, the city has lost more than $226,000 in stolen wiring alone, placing a burden not only on the city in replacement costs that often take up to two weeks, but on taxpayers.

Since July, 35,000 linear feet of wiring has been stolen from Mesa's parks alone, affecting both adult and youth baseball and softball schedules at a $65,000 cost to the city, said Marc Heirshberg, director of the city's parks, recreation and commercial facilities.

When scrap metal is sold to Valley scrap yards, one must have an industrial business account to do so, a contractor's license, and if an individual is selling it, they must have a driver's license, according to Bill Butcher, general manager of Phoenix-based Arizona Recycling which has scrap yards in Mesa and Tempe.

Loads of stolen metal and wiring going to scrap yards can cause sports schedules and road repairs in the city to get scrapped.

Recently, lighting at Red Mountain Park was stolen, but was scheduled to get replaced this week, said Marc Heirshberg, the city's director for parks, recreation and commercial facilities. Wire thefts in parks have affected both adult and children's athletic events.

"Canceling league practices and games plus the cost of repairs have been the toughest part of dealing with these thefts," Heirshberg said. "We want our ball fields and parks to be safe lighted recreation areas for both kids and adults. The thefts have posed an inconvenience and have resulted in reshuffling league schedules."

But maintaining lighting and safety along the city's streets remain a priority.

"A lot of people don't think the wire and metal theft affects them, but it does," said Dan Cleavenger, Mesa transportation director. "There's money set aside for street repairs and other projects that need to get done, but because of increasing thefts, they don't get done. It can definitely cause a hit to the city's operating budget. This has caused us to look at recycling facilities and scrap yards and begin to crack down more on those who aren't complying with regulations within the law."

Mesa, in partnership with Silent Witness, is offering up to a $6,000 reward to anyone who calls in anonymously that could lead authorities to an arrest in wire thefts.

If anyone sees any suspicious activity, they can make an anonymous call to Silent Witness at (480) 948-6377.

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