Copper thefts measured in miles around Seattle

Copper crimes grow while Federal bill targeting copper thieves making way through US Senate

A couple of interesting developments in the Seattle are this week must have been keeping law enforcement busy.

First, a number of outlets are reporting that prosecutors have charged two men with what is being called the largest metal theft in state history - 4.3 miles of copper wire from the underside of an elevated train line over an eight month period spanning 1010-2011.

[RELATED: US Dept. of Energy devises security system to thwart rampant copper thefts]

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The heavy work required to access and cut the wire was the alleged criminals undoing as they apparently bought multiple bottles of Gatorade along with them.  It was DNA samples from those bottles and other investigative information that lead law enforcement to the Donald Howard Turpin, 54, and Lee Russell Skelly, 44.

From the  King County Prosecutors Office:  "The defendants allegedly committed the theft by entering maintenance hatches in a tunnel that runs below the light rail between the SeaTac and Rainer Beach Rail Stations. They would enter at night and remove the copper wire, which is designed to ground "stray voltage" in the track system, by using standard bolt cutters. They allegedly dropped the wire through air vents and then drove along the line, picking up the cut wire at various locations. Detectives believe that the theft occurred over several months, with the defendants working through the night to cut and strip the wire. Evidence gathered by King County Sheriff's Detectives shows that the men allegedly took the wire to various scrap metal recycling businesses in King County and sold the metal. The investigation focused on Turpin after detectives found DNA evidence on items in the tunnel. Turpin made approximately $39,000 in profit while Skelly received over $4000. Turpin had a state issued business license which would allow him to scrap the metal with little if any scrutiny by the scrap metal buyers. The replacement cost of the 70,000 pounds of copper wire is estimated at $1.3 million so far."

Washington recently passed a bill to increase metal-theft penalties and regulation of the scrap-recycling industry and create a no-buy list of known thieves, according to the Seattle Times.

The FBI, on the other hand, this week charged two men with the theft of 7,200 feet of copper wire from runway light towers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport rendering them inoperable and potentially posing a threat to airline safety.  U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. Jeramie Harms, 28, and Timothy Lynch, 50, entered a secured area of Sea-Tac airport and removed copper cable from the light towers. The copper wire cost more than $77,000 when it was installed in 2008.  The men are charged with theft of public property, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the FBI stated.

 The two copper theft stories here are just a couple from a bumper crop of thefts across the world that seem to be getting larger. In Europe last month, 17 countries cooperated in a giant copper theft sting that brought in tons of metal and 37 suspects.

The continued growth in copper thievery is prompting a Federal law that recently made its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee.  US Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Charles Schumer (D-NY) and John Hoeven (R-ND) are behind "The Metal Theft Prevention Act" which would help crack down on metal thieves and make it harder for them to sell stolen metal.

The Act calls for enforcement by the US Attorney General and gives state attorneys general the ability to bring civil actions to enforce the provisions of the legislation. It also directs the US Sentencing Commission to review penalty guidelines as they relate to metal theft and make sure they are adequate.  The bill also makes it an explicit federal crime to steal metal from critical infrastructure, according to Klobuchar's web site. 

Between 2009 and 2011, the National Insurance Crime Bureau found over 25,000 insurance claims related to metal theft, an increase of 81% over claims made between 2006 and 2008.In a study, the U.S. Department of Energy found that the total value of damages to industries affected by the theft of copper wire would likely exceed over $900 million each year according to Klobuchar's web site.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook

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