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Copper Thief Killed Trying to Cut Electrical Line

RALEIGH, NC (AP) — With high copper prices offering a tempting incentive to thieves, recent injuries and a death in North Carolina have underlined that the trade in plundered metal isn’t just illegal, it’s potentially fatal.

Thomas Freeman was killed Wednesday in Charlotte when he was electrocuted while trying to cut an electrical cable in a bid to steal copper, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

In Gastonia, police say two men were severely burned last month after an explosion that happened while they were trying to steal copper from an electrical substation.

“Wherever they’re going to get the most money, that’s where they’re going to go to,” regardless of the potential risk, said Gastonia Police Detective H. Houser.

As metal prices rise, police say, copper thefts are increasing. Growing awareness means easier targets like vacant homes and large exterior air conditioning units are getting more scarce, leading thieves to more dangerous targets.

Since the fall, a wave of thefts has been reported across North Carolina, ranging from private homes to churches.

On three occasions between mid-December and this week, thieves struck Gaston Skills, a nonprofit group that provides services to people with mental and physical disabilities in Gaston, Lincoln and Cleveland counties.

Three big air conditioning units were stripped for copper, causing between $45,000 and $50,000 worth of damage, production manager Larry Wayne said.

“They absolutely gutted and destroyed the units,” he said. “It’s a disaster.”

The organization hopes insurance will cover most of the cost of damage, but is looking at $15,000 in out-of-pocket costs to beef up security, bringing in everything from video surveillance cameras to razor wire.

That’s money they’d rather be spending on programs for the 250 or so clients at two facilities.

“It means we have to tighten the belt another notch, I suppose,” Wayne said.

Copper prices actually fell slightly this week, dropping about 8 cents to $4.3295 a pound. After the price climbed by about 33 percent last year, analysts expect that to come down this year as global stockpiles begin to build up again.

At the Salvage America recycling center in Greensboro, though, scrap metal prices still lure thieves trying to make a fast buck, general manager Billy Jones said. Salvage America requires fingerprints and copies of driver’s licenses from members of the public looking to sell scrap metal, Jones said, which should theoretically deter thieves.

“I don’t understand it,” Jones said. “They get caught, I tell them they’re going to get caught, and they still do it anyway.”

Some thieves have even stolen copper from Salvage America and then tried to sell it back to them, Jones said.

“We’re not immune to it,” he said.

Houser said businesses looking to prevent theft should add video surveillance and keep the property lit at night. Most of the homes hit by thieves are vacant, so owners should make sure a house looks occupied even if waiting for tenants or new owners to move in, she said.

Copyright © 2010 Associated Press.
Story via Bloomberg.com
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