Metal thieves a growing problem throughout state: Man allegedly tries to steal copper tubing at site of Angora fire |

Metal thieves a growing problem throughout state: Man allegedly tries to steal copper tubing at site of Angora fire

Susan Wood
Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Dart Liquor beer purchaser John Ellings removes empty beer kegs from a conveyor belt on Monday.

County prosecutors are closing in on a Reno man who allegedly tried to steal copper tubing from the Angora fire zone, the latest in a series of strange cases reported across the state as the price of metals soars.

The scrap metals are sold to junkyards for quick cash, often with no questions asked.

El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Hans Uthe said Monday the suspect was approached by law enforcement a few weeks ago when he was found with “a barrel full of copper tubing.” He was questioned and released but later investigated.

“We have heightened patrols in the area. By next week, we hope to have an arrest,” he said.

The incident is one in a series of theft-related cases seen as the value of copper increases to about $3 per pound. If the crime involves a net gain of more than $400, the suspect may face a felony grand theft charge.

State farmers have teamed up with the California Sheriff’s Association to come up with stricter laws covering metal dealers who take part in the illegal transfer of goods. A state Assembly bill, AB844, was stalled as it evolved into a version more acceptable to the industry lobby.

The case isn’t the first and maybe not the last for the South Shore. In May 2006, vandals dug up an SBC telecom line near Kyburz that resulted in a massive outage of phone, Internet, e-mail, fax and other wireless services from Placerville to South Lake Tahoe.

A Somerset man was arrested two months later for allegedly stealing the copper wiring to sell as scrap. El Dorado County Sheriff’s Lt. Kevin House had estimated Aaron Gilis and three other accomplices made $10,000 in selling precious metals.

Apparently, the thefts are not exclusive to copper or even telecom lines.

NorCal Beverage, a Loomis beer distributor that supplies about 125 locations in South Lake Tahoe, reports about 10 beer kegs a month disappear. For a standard $30 deposit, a thief may net $90 on a 40-pound keg.

Harry Van Dam, who owns Dart Discount Liquor, said he hasn’t noticed missing kegs on his end, but the store doesn’t track all of them.

Other items have been targeted, according to Nick Warner, legislative affairs director for the state Sheriff’s Association.

Materials at construction sites, Caltrans’ guardrails and even brass vases at a cemetery in San Joaquin County have been lifted, he said. Moreover, farm irrigation systems have been ripped out of the ground as thieves have tried to profit from the copper in the pumps that water the crops. The crimes may get the thieves about $200 for the wiring but cause between $1,500 to $4,000 in damage, Warner said.

The problem has become so pervasive the California Farm Bureau and sheriff’s union are pushing for local jurisdictions to enact laws to crack down on scrap metal dealers and make them more accountable in what they buy. Fresno County’s law is being challenged.

The call for local ordinances resulted from AB844 being pulled from Assembly committee.

“We’re very supportive of legislation to help stop the theft. It’s just (the original bill) covered every piece of metal in the universe. It wasn’t practical,” said Katherine Brandenburg, who represents the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industry. “We’re open to co-sponsoring legislation.”

Brandenburg said the bill was once stifling because it called for the transfer of goods to involve a check to establish a paper trail.

“A lot of these (sellers) want cash,” she said.

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