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Recycling centers helping police catch copper thieves
Combating the problem is a joint effort, director of security says
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Accused copper thieves James Wingo and his juvenile partner likely learned a valuable lesson as they sat handcuffed in a police cruiser Tuesday — investigators aren't playing games when it comes to metal theft.

The pair joined a growing number of offenders arrested after selling stolen metal to local recycling facilities.

Joe Bullat, the director of security for Schnitzer Southeast who helped police catch Wingo, said metal thieves often aren't aware that recycling companies are required by law to keep detailed records of who sells what.

"We're not dealing with rocket scientists here," he said. "That's why they're out there committing these crimes."

According to Hall County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Jeff Strickland, as the price of various materials like copper has gone up, there has been an increase in the number of metal thefts over the last several years.

These items are often sold to recycling facilities for $3 or $4 a pound.

Though it may seem like an easy way to unload stolen property, Strickland said the facilities keep detailed records that often help police track down criminals.

Those selling metals are required to present a government identification, name, address, signed statement, license plate number and must wait 24 hours before accepting cash.

"When a crime occurs, (investigators) give us a call," Bullat said. "Based on the information that we gather and keep, we are able to provide them at least a lead or guideline of which direction to pursue. Once you're able to provide that type of information to the law enforcement agency, they're normally able to pick it up from there and actually make a successful arrest."

This was the case after copper was reported stolen from 11 heating, ventilation and air conditioning units June 7 at Sugar Hill Elementary School.

With the thieves causing damage of $75,000 to $100,000, Strickland said the sheriff's office notified local recyclers to be on the lookout for large amounts of copper.

Later that day, information provided by Schnitzer Southeast helped law enforcement place Wingo, 21, and a juvenile accomplice under arrest.

Both have been charged with felony theft by taking, felony criminal damage and possession of tools of a crime, according to Strickland.

"We're community oriented. We're recyclers," Bullat said. "We want to put these guys in jail just as much as the police and victims do. That's the right thing to do.

We're a large company and we have stringent company code of ethics and that policy is driven home to each and every employee."

Catching criminals might not be in his job description, but Bullat said recycling facilities still share in the responsibility.

"Combating this problem is a joint effort by everyone from the victims, recyclers, law enforcement to the district attorneys office for prosecuting," he said. "If everyone bands together, we're able to actually generate more leads and put these people in jail."