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Copper theft laws have mixed results
Reward offered in recent case as incidents persist
This compressor unit was one of those damaged by thieves that stripped copper from the units next to a warehouse on Monroe Drive. - photo by Tom Reed

Philip Wilheit had heard the horror stories about copper thefts before he became a victim.

The Gainesville packaging business owner heard from friends and associates about homes vacant for only a few days being stripped bare of copper wiring, and how the metal had become a prime target for thieves.

Then someone stole copper off nine compressor units outside a warehouse Wilheit owns. The thieves took less than $10,000 worth of copper but caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage in the process, he said.

This week, Wilheit decided to offer a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.

"I just don’t have a very high tolerance for thieves," Wilheit said. "This has been a very prevalent crime and it bothers me greatly that I have been hit and so many people I know have been hit."

Georgia lawmakers passed legislation this year meant to better police the secondary market that buys scrap copper, requiring recycling businesses to keep records of who they buy metal from and allowing law enforcement to inspect the records. It was the second time since 2007 the General Assembly has passed legislation to specifically addresses copper theft.

The 2009 law, similar to laws that pawn shop operators must follow, has curbed the crime some, but copper thefts persist, said the law’s author, state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford.

"I think it’s a step in the right direction," Unterman said. "The cooperation between the industry and law enforcement is helping. The big industry folks are doing great, but it’s the smaller renegade-types that are causing the problems."

Unterman said some scrap metal buyers do business over the Internet and are harder to police.

Bryan Jacobs, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition Against Copper Theft, said the number of copper thefts in Georgia has dropped from the epidemic levels the state was seeing prior to legislation. But many states still don’t have laws on the books addressing the problem and preventing someone from crossing state lines to unload stolen copper with no questions asked, he said.

"That’s why we’re pushing for legislation on the federal level," Jacobs said.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., introduced the Copper Theft Prevention Act of 2008. It would require purchasers of copper to keep records for at least two years and prohibit cash transactions of more than $500.

Copper theft, a largely 21st century phenomenon, grew as the price for the metal spiked. In 2000, copper was as low as 83 cents a pound. At its peak in February 2008, it reached just more than $4 a pound. Currently the price is about $3 a pound.

Recyclers would pay thieves significantly lower than market value, Jacobs said. "It doesn’t seem like there’s much science to it," he said. "It may depend on the sophistication of the person who’s selling it."

Regardless of the current market value or new laws, the value of copper has become ingrained in the criminal culture.

"You definitely see a correlation between places where there is a methamphetamine problem and where copper theft is a problem," Jacobs said. "Criminals are doing this for a reason, and unfortunately that’s drug-related, for the most part."

Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said the enhancement to state law has made a difference, but investigators still see copper theft "from time to time."

The copper theft at Wilheit’s warehouse "was the first theft of that magnitude," Strickland said.

Unterman said she hopes lawmakers will revisit the issue again in the upcoming legislative session. She wants to see secondary market copper sellers fingerprinted by recyclers, a measure that the industry has resisted.

Wilheit hopes the reward he’s posted can make some difference locally.

"If we can catch one and make an example of them, maybe it won’t happen quite as much," he said.