Scrap metal thefts escalating around Tampa Bay

In his 25 years as a boat captain, Bill Nelson hadn't seen anything like it: a 65-foot houseboat emptied of 3,000 pounds of lead bars from deep within its belly.

The bars, about 70 pounds each, were ballast for the aluminum boat, which Nelson was repairing at a Pinellas Park parking lot.

The bars were a bounty for a scrap metal thief, arrested in July, who scored about $500 for the bars at a local scrap yard, Pinellas sheriff's deputies said.

"To buy that lead costs about $12,000," Nelson said. "I couldn't believe it."

With a sour economy and foreclosed homes pockmarking the landscape, scrap metal thievery in Tampa Bay is increasing and the people behind it are going to greater and more destructive lengths to obtain the valuable metals.

Though the metal thieves are getting more brazen and creative, they still walk away with pennies compared to the thousands of dollars in damage and replacement costs they cause.

"It's so lucrative right now, more and more people are doing it," said Hillsborough County sheriff's Deputy Kyle Varnum, who works on scrap metal cases. "It's an easy way to make some money."

• • •

No metal is safe.

Take a look a some recent thefts.

In July, deputies said a Riverview man tried to sell brass bars used as roller coaster brake pads at Busch Gardens. In January in Valrico, two men were caught with 15 manhole covers in their pickup.

In northwest Pasco this month, deputies said, two men and a woman ripped off more than 200 feet of copper wire from Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative substations.

Across Tampa Bay, thieves have tried to scrap park benches, railroad ties, chain-link fences, stairway railings, cemetery vases and water backflow preventers. They've tried to cash in on a section of guardrail taken from a stretch of Interstate 75 and have tried to resell metal stolen from scrap yards.

It is a crime of opportunity that has steadily grown over the last decade with the rising price of metals and increasing demand for their export to China and India, experts say.

Copper, which can be pried from air conditioners in minutes and recently peaked at $4 a pound, is a popular choice for thieves — especially when its price goes up.

"If you look at the price of copper, that's usually how the thefts go," said Detective Greg Pollock of the Hillsborough County sheriff's burglary unit.

Thieves also will grab aluminum, which goes for about 75 cents a pound, or lead and steel, which get about 15 cents.

• • •

Scrap metal collectors have traditionally been older folks scratching out a modest income by Dumpster diving or hauling construction debris.

They've been joined in recent years by a new breed of collector unafraid of breaking the law. Hillsborough County sheriff's Detective Dillon Corr, who investigates scrap metal cases, said he recently arrested a former drug dealer for metal theft. The dealer said he had switched to scrap metal because it was safer than dealing drugs.

"It's quick cash," Corr said.

Metal crimes are difficult to tackle.

They often happen under cover of darkness and authorities rarely catch them in progress. Increasingly, unoccupied foreclosed homes are being targeted, especially for air conditioners, law enforcement officials say.

So it's essential that authorities frequently monitor scrap metal yards. They credit the cooperation of the scrap yards for many arrests.

A 2008 state law requires scrap yard operators to record a seller's full name, address, home and work phone numbers, vehicle information, height, weight, gender, eye and hair color and right thumbprint. It also requires payments of more than $1,000 to be made by check.

Still, the regulations are leaner than those at pawnshops, which under state law must provide authorities with electronic sales records.

Some counties have stiffer regulations. Some think more should be done.

"Without having a universal state law, these thieves can steal in one county and in some cases travel to the next county and sell their material," said Jeff Powers, general manager of Trademark Metals Recycling, which has scrap yards in Hillsborough, Pinellas and throughout the southeast.

In Tampa, officials recently determined that they could enforce a Hillsborough County ordinance inside the city that requires metal recyclers to keep electronic records of who brings in metal to sell. Police say it will save them a lot of time to call up the database of scrap metal sales instead of having to go to the scrap yards in person.

Metal thefts have been so frequent in rural Hillsborough this year that the Sheriff's Office assigned five school resource officers this summer to help with the cases for about six weeks. The Sheriff's Office also added a patrol deputy to assist a detective assigned to investigate the crimes. The result was 38 arrests and a noticeable decrease in the number of cases, officials said.

Friday, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office arrested one prolific metal thief who it says caused $500,000 in damage. Deputies said Joshua Damien Poe, 25, of Tampa specialized in extracting copper from air conditioners. He faces 61 charges, from grand theft to providing false information to a recycler.

The Sheriff's Office also has hosted a "copper theft intelligence meeting" for the last five years. It is attended by area law enforcement agencies and many victims, such as Progress Energy and Tampa Electric, who all share strategies for combating the problem.

In St. Petersburg, officials saw a rash of crimes over the summer in which air conditioners at churches and businesses were targeted, said Sgt. Tim Montanari, who heads the St. Petersburg Police Department burglary unit.

Among them was St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, which was hit twice in May for its industrial-sized air conditioners. Three units were stripped for their copper on a Tuesday. The church replaced them. Two weeks later, the same units were stripped again.

"I guess they were lucky if they got $85 for what they stole," said a church deacon, John Washington, "but it cost us $10,000 (to replace them) each time."

The church now floods them with light and encloses them in custom-made metal cages.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at (727)892-2271. Danny Valentine can be reached at (727) 893-8804.

. FAST FACTS

A growing trend

• The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office logged 69 metal thefts this year through the end of June, compared to 78 for all of 2010 and 68 in 2009.

• The trend was similar in St. Petersburg, with 89 reported copper thefts through July, compared to 102 in 2010. "If the trend continues, we'll have nearly double the number of thefts this year," police spokesman Mike Puetz said.

• Tampa police have had 247 metal-related thefts through June. They had 380 in 2009 and 558 in 2010 — a nearly 47 percent increase.

• The Pasco County Sheriff's Office estimates there were 156 scrap metal thefts through the middle of August — outpacing an estimated 144 cases in all of 2010.

Scrap metal thefts escalating around Tampa Bay 08/20/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 20, 2011 10:51pm]

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