by the numbersMissing

Thefts of scrap metal rise as does its value

The crimes can seem as bizarre as they are shocking:

• At a public park in Largo, someone unbolted and hauled away a 6-foot-tall, 400-pound bronze statue of two kids hoisting an American flag.

• At a cemetery in St. Petersburg, sheriff's officials said two men stole titanium artificial body parts left over after cremations.

• And just last week, Clearwater police said they were looking for the thief who went to Glen Oaks Park and made off with a bronze plaque memorializing a teenager killed by a drunk driver in 1985.

Authorities have not said all those cases are the work of scrap metal thieves, but each fits the pattern of a crime that's increasingly common across the Tampa Bay area as metal prices rise.

It's a crime spawned by global capitalism, experts say. China and India are booming and demanding construction materials. Also, because the dollar continues to fall, investors are rushing to invest in metals.

The result: a spike in the prices of scrap metals once thought of as junk. A few weeks ago, according to Reuters, copper was selling for $8,820 per metric ton, up nearly 30 percent in the past three months. Aluminum was selling for $3,155 per metric ton. Prices for other metal such as titanium and brass, also coveted by thieves, are also rising.

"Everything is coming together right now to drive these (scrap metal) prices up," said David Denslow, a professor of economics at the University of Florida.

For local authorities, that global demand for metal translates into a need for greater vigilance as thieves become more creative finding their targets.

Since the middle of last month, Clearwater police have recorded 13 cases of stolen brass from water meters and valves, mostly at commercial properties, according to police spokeswoman Elizabeth Daly-Watts.

In 2007 and early this year, Clearwater has had 22 thefts of copper wire or tubing.

Clearwater police also said last week they were looking for a 100-pound bronze plaque pried from the wall of the David Martin Soccer Field at Glen Oaks Park. The plaque is valued at $1,337.

The field is named after David Martin, a 16-year-old Clearwater Central Catholic High soccer player killed by a drunk driver in 1985.

David's father, Jimmy Martin, said Friday he doesn't know who took the plaque, but said his guess was that thief would try to sell the metal.

"At this point," said Daly-Watts, "anything's a possibility."

In Largo, police Lt. Mike Loux said there had not been a noticeable uptick in scrap metal theft. He said it's possible, however, that the demand for scrap metal provided the motivation for November's theft of a statue titled I Love My Country from Largo Central Park. Purchased by the city for $3,900, it might have sold for $620 as scrap.

In Pinellas Park, police have seen thieves steal copper from air conditioning units and athletic field scoreboards. They've also stolen aluminum from rails on bridges and brass fittings that the city uses in water pipes.

The problem has grown so much that investigators from law enforcement agencies now meet regularly to discuss ways to stem the rise in scrap metal thefts.

"It's difficult because it's one of those crimes that you usually don't have witnesses to," said Pinellas Park police Capt. Sanfield Forseth. "A lot of these thefts happen at night."

Forseth said police have begun using new codes to track specific types of metal thefts. The city is also considering revising ordinances to require businesses that buy scrap metal to obtain proper identification for people who bring in scrap metals.

Hillsborough officials have also seen a rise in metal thefts, especially copper. The increase has been so dramatic that the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office now has a full-time detective who investigates copper thefts.

Steve Weinberg, chairman of the Tampa-based home builders Shimberg Homes, said scrap-metal thieves hit construction sites three times since last November, prompting the company to install security cameras.

"It was pretty rampant," Weinberg said. "They would actually strip copper wires out of houses and take wires out of panels, even after houses were dry-walled."

While the scrap the thieves stole typically sold for several dollars a pound, the air conditioning units they ruined often cost several thousand dollars, Weinberg said.

State Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, recently introduced a bill that would require scrap metal dealers to get more information from sellers, such as photo identification and a thumb print. The bill would also enhance penalties for criminals who steal scrap metal.

Troutman said he began looking at the issue after someone stole some copper wire from his property.

"It's an epidemic," he said. "This is a really, really big problem nationwide."

Sgt. Charles Degenhardt, who oversees the burglary and pawn unit for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, said he would support the changes made by such a bill. He said the mangled materials that thieves bring to scrap centers often make it difficult for investigators to trace them to their original owners.

"How can you tell if this comes from a junk pile in the woods somewhere or the back of a building?" Degenhardt said. "It's very tough."

Degenhardt said the Sheriff's Office has handled about one to two dozen scrap-metal theft cases in the past few years, and that arrests usually come through surveillance or breaks, when thieves try to sell unusual items such as titanium body parts.

In the case at the St. Petersburg cemetery, Jack McWilliams, 19, and Vincent Marlyne, 42, broke into a cemetery vault used to store titanium body parts that remained after cremations, authorities said. Then the men sold the metal, about 1,500 pounds of it, as scrap for $1,500.

Degenhardt said much of the stolen goods go to the Pacific Rim. Some port workers told him the price of metals can go up 10 percent to 15 percent during the voyage from Tampa to a country like China.

"Before, the value of scrap didn't rise highly enough for us to have problems with it," he said. "But now the price of scrap is high enough."

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Jonathan Abel and Tamara El-Khoury contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

$8,820 The price of copper per metric ton.

30% Approximate increase in the price of copper in the past three months.

13 incidents of stolen brass from water meters or valves have been recorded by Clearwater police since the middle of last month.

22 thefts of copper wire or tubing have been reported in 2007 and this year.

Thefts of scrap metal rise as does its value 03/22/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 29, 2008 2:09pm]

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