Staying a step ahead of the coppers

Copper thieves first hit my radar screen earlier this summer when they stripped the air conditioning unit of a church in my neighborhood, leading to an uncomfortably warm day of worship. At about the same time, my sister told me of the exact same thing happening to a church near her in the Los Angeles area.


The vice president of Utah Metal Works with the type of copper thieves have focused on nationwide.

The vice president of Utah Metal Works with the type of copper thieves have focused on nationwide.

That’s when I did some Google searches and learned of churches all over the place going without air conditioning and lights. But it wasn’t just churches. Businesses of all kinds, vacant houses and even streetlights were, and still are, targets from coast to coast.

And now, as the Deseret News reported, drivers along I-15 have to navigate in the dark along the north end of Salt Lake City because of a theft that occurred last March.

Here’s how brazen these thieves are: They apparently will dress as construction workers, figuring if they act with confidence no one will question them as they rip out thousands of feet of wire, which they sell for scrap at about $3 a pound.

The thefts have become a $1 billion nuisance in the United States, according to this CNBC report. More than just a nuisance, though, they are becoming a public safety concern. They strike power substations and, as in Utah, light poles.

Bob Younie, state maintenance manager for the Iowa Department of Transportation, told the Omaha World-Herald he suspects the thieves have a sophisticated knowledge of electricity and circuits. Stealing copper wire from light poles or junction boxes is dangerous business. You can’t just rip the stuff out, and it’s interesting to note no one has discovered any bodies of electrocuted thieves.

He made those comments in response to thefts in Council Bluffs, Iowa that left several streetlights dark.

The trouble with these thefts from light poles is that local governments often lack the funds to make immediate repairs. That’s the case in Utah, where state officials would have to reach into snow-removal budgets to bring the lights back on. The stretch of I-15 likely will stay dark through the winter.

Some of the thieves, like these two captured in Florida, are trying to support their drug habits. But others may be part of more sophisticated rings.

The private market will naturally rise up and see the profit potential involved in protecting copper wire. The CNBC report said this has already begun, with some companies using satellite technology, video systems and special theft-proof casings to protect wire.

Of course, it would be impossible to keep constant surveillance on mile after mile of interstate lighting across much of the nation. For that, police may have to rely on motorists who are curious enough about late-night construction crews that they will dial authorities and ask if everything is legit.

Categories: Crime

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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