CREATED Apr 30, 2012
Reporter: Kevin Keen
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - The crime is copper theft. The criminals show no hesitation ripping out valuable copper pipes and wiring from businesses, city property and homes. KGUN9 wanted to know: once they steal all that copper, how do thieves get away with turning it into cash? It turns out there's a state law that could deter criminals and help law enforcement. But does it work?
Scrap dealers are supposed to follow the Arizona law when buying metal like copper. To test it, KGUN9 photographer Alfonso took a load of copper and metal to a large Tucson recycler. KGUN9 only had enough metal to go to one scrap yard. Alfonso shot video with his cell phone, which was in plain sight.
The law requires scrap dealers to first keep track of every sale. Did that happen here? Yes. Staff made a list of our metal and snapped pictures.
Then, the final sale. Following the rules, the cashier copied Alfonso's driver license to get his name, address, age and other information. The recycler also took Alfonso's fingerprint, as required by law.
In the end, Alfonso got more than $100 for the box of scrap. The copper ran $3.30 a pound.
Ultimately, KGUN9 found the recycler, Sims Metal Management, followed the law. KGUN9 asked after the investigation, and the company agreed to talk.
“In the grand scheme of helping communities deal with theft like copper theft, what is the role of metal yards like this one here?” reporter Kevin Keen asked Michael Filandro, operations manager for the company in Phoenix. “For the metal yard, to follow the guidelines and regulations to ensure the fact that we have everything in place to protect against that,” he answered.
Filandro said his company spent a lot of money on cameras that document every step of every sale. Staff showed KGUN9 surveillance pictures from Alfonso's visit.
“We're kind of watching everything all the way through the process from beginning to end to make sure that we have the right person, the same person over and over again,” Filandro said.
Scrap yards send the pictures and data to a DPS database used by law enforcement agencies throughout the state.
“We can now search by a person's name, amount of materials, dollar values of materials that have been paid out,” explained Officer David Kleinlein, part of the Tucson Police Department's property crimes division.
If investigators find someone's selling a lot of copper, for example, “we'd follow up with that, contact the business who's actually buying the material, learn a little more about the customer,” Kleinlein said. “If they're actually buying for a business, then that could possibly rule them out as a suspect.”
Keen asked him, “How easy is it to catch a thief then doing it that way?” “It'll give us some suspicious activity,” the officer answered. “We still have to link a person to a specific crime. We can't just look through the database and say, 'OK, this person sold this amount of copper wire therefore they can be deemed a suspect.' We actually have to do some more investigation and find a victim.”
Kleinlein said that's the limit of this law and database--even if every scrap yard abides by the rules.
“The tool is really effective for what we need it for,” he said.
Combating the plague of copper theft, Kleinlein says, will have to come on another front. He suggested other state laws be bolstered to give law enforcement more tools to track down and prosecute copper thieves.
TPD officials added the problem is growing so much, a specialized scrap metal crime unit is in the works. That division could, for example, ensure recyclers are reporting their sales--possibly through surveillance, informants and undercover work.
A previous version of this story indicated an incorrect sale price for the copper. It has since been updated.