FBI: Copper theft ring awaiting jail time

The last member of a ring of copper thieves today plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and malicious destruction of communication lines and systems today according to the FBI.

Virginia resident Keith Pickens pled guilty to United States District Judge Raymond Jackson and now awaits sentencing on June 23, 2008.

According to court documents, from January of 2007 through July of 2007, Pickens and other defendants stole copper grounding bars and copper wiring from cellular telephone towers and thereafter sold the stolen copper to local salvage dealers. The defendants entered over 130 cellular tower sites located in 17 different jurisdictions in the Eastern District of Virginia and eastern North Carolina. Upon entering onto the tower sites, they forcibly removed the copper grounding bars and copper wiring, thereby injuring the tower sites and telephone equipment, and potentially impairing cellular communications systems in the affected areas. The damage to the cellular equipment is estimated to be approximately $270,000, the FBI said in a release.

Copper theft is an epidemic crime across the nation and the world. Police in some states have reported that thieves are now targeting the growing amounts of empty, foreclosed houses to steal copper wiring. Of course, not all criminals are the brightest bulbs; some have been killed or maimed pulling out live wires. I reported last year that there was a growing movement by telecommunications vendors to offer rewards leading to the arrest of copper thieves.

Since 2004, the price of copper has increased from 80 cents to close to $4 a pound as demand grows in China, India and Brazil, experts say.

Pickens' co-defendants in the case, all residents of Virginia, have previously pled guilty to the charge of malicious destruction of communication lines and systems and are awaiting sentencing. Heather Yerigan also pled guilty to conspiracy on March 11, 2008, and will be sentenced on June 4, 2008. Dale Merrill pled guilty this week and will be sentenced on June 25, 2008. Marinabernadett Long pled guilty on March 24, 2008, and will be sentenced on June 25, 2008. Sarah Jo Carr pled guilty on March 11, 2008, and will be sentenced on June 4, 2008. They each face a maximum of 10 years for malicious destruction of communication lines and systems. In addition, Pickens and Yerigan face a maximum of 5 years in prison for the conspiracy charge.

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