In Pasco and elsewhere, copper theft loses luster

DADE CITY — Jason Lanier, 27, pleaded guilty Thursday to two counts of grand theft in separate cases of stealing copper wire. He got 10 years of probation.

His codefendant Timothy Davis, 24, pleaded guilty to the same charges. He got a year and a half in prison.

Fairly routine stuff on the daily docket in Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa's courtroom or pretty much any other courtroom just about anywhere else.

But these two copper theft cases and the many others that pop up these days on criminal courts calendars are practically relics of a roughly three-year spike of copper prices that took the metal to as high as $4 a pound. The United States needed copper for wiring in all the new houses that were being built. Also: equipment for two wars. China needed it for … everything. So did India.

Economics 101: Global demand went up. Supply went down. Price shot sky-high.

What followed was predictable.

The problem of metal theft all over the place got so bad that authorities were describing it with words usually associated with awful illnesses:

"Epidemic."

"Plague."

The U.S. Department of Energy put the total cost of thefts from utility companies around the country in 2006 and 2007 at about $1-billion.

Politicians hustled to draft bills and pass laws in an attempt to slow the crime trend.

And then the market pretty much did it for them.

The price of copper has dropped like the price of gas.

Far and fast.

Copper now sells for less than a buck a pound.

Down, too, went the rate of the thefts.

"We haven't had any recently," said Carol Molnar, the district services coordinator for Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative in Dade City. She was in court Thursday to watch the Lanier and Davis cases wrap up.

"But we do have cases coming up in the next month," she said.

More leftovers.

Growing frenzy

Back in the heady, halcyon days for metal thieves, they were everywhere, with their saws and their drills and their bolt-cutters and their night-vision goggles, stealing manhole covers, storm grates, street signs, pieces of street lights, sprinklers, air-conditioning units, statues from churches, cemetery urns, gravestones with metal markers, fire hydrant fittings and coils of copper wire from houses, construction sites, Little League baseball fields — whatever, wherever.

One guy in the Seattle area stole some football goalposts. Another guy in California tried to sell to a recycler a stolen rotor blade from a helicopter.

Some of the thieves were burned.

Or electrically shocked.

Some died.

One guy in Kentucky ended up hanging from some power wires until someone spotted his body.

Another guy in Oregon? He touched the wrong wire and burst into flames.

But all the stealing of copper and other metals didn't stop even as the economy started to show serious signs of strain.

Empty foreclosed homes?

There was copper in there.

Stagnant construction sites?

Copper!

Times started to get tough. For a while, though, prices for metal stayed high. The Sheriff's Office in Hillsborough County assigned a detective to handle nothing but cases of copper theft.

All of this peaked toward the end of this past summer.

Punishment time

Lanier, Davis and his brother Troy Davis, 20, who were neighbors on Lynne Drive in Wesley Chapel, were arrested in September.

According to authorities, they stole seven rolls of copper wire worth more than $1,000 from the construction site for the new movie theater at the Grove shopping mall in Wesley Chapel, and also stole more than 1,000 feet of copper wire valued at more than $11,000 from Withlacoochee's New River Substation.

Lanier got probation and not prison time because he helped authorities with their investigation.

Troy Davis has a court date later this month.

All three of them will have to split more than $25,000 in restitution to local electric companies and their insurance companies.

Lanier had his 4-year-old son with him in court. Grand theft is a third-degree felony. He could've gotten five years in prison for each count.

"Could've been worse," he said outside the courtroom.

He could've been the guy with a court date next month. Christopher Cody Williams, 37, was on the roof of the Winn-Dixie in Zephyrhills with a drill, a wrench and some bolt-cutters when sheriff's deputies showed up. He was arrested after he jumped off the roof and broke both his feet.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

In Pasco and elsewhere, copper theft loses luster 12/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 4, 2008 7:40pm]

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