The thieves weren’t interested in the collection boxes or the computer equipment at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church. They were after the copper on the roof and along the sides.
Wielding pickaxes and crowbars, they pried up the gutters and the flashing, leaving a $12,000 mess that the old church — with no insurance at the time — is still struggling to clean up.
Stealing metal and selling it to scrap dealers has long been a way to make money, but with metal prices running higher than usual, the problem has gotten especially bad, and now lawmakers in Illinois and at least a dozen other states are trying to stop some of the plundering of vacant houses, businesses, construction sites, churches, even graveyards.
They are pushing measures that would require scrap dealers to keep detailed records on those who sell them metal. The hope is that the paper trail will lead to arrests.
For scrap-metal thieves, anything is fair game — siding, gutters, spools of electric cable, pipes, even beer kegs. Some of the more brazen ones raid salvage yards, then sell the stolen metal back to the businesses.
Copper is particularly desirable. Copper prices hit an all-time high at about $4 a pound last May and averaged slightly more than $3 a pound through 2006.
Out of control in Illinois
“Scrap metal thieving is out of control, it really is,” said Lt. Brad Wells of the Madison County, Ill., Sheriff’s Department, which last month requested public help in trying to identify three men caught on security cameras stealing from a shuttered site victimized at least a dozen times. No arrests have been made.
These are among the proposals for cracking down on thefts:
- In Illinois, a measure would require scrap dealers to copy the driver’s license or state ID of metal sellers and photograph the license plate and side of the seller’s vehicle, along with the items purchased.
- A bill in Hawaii would bar scrap copper dealers from buying the metal from minors and people without a government-issued picture ID. Other proposals would require sellers of scrap copper to be fingerprinted.
- In Texas, one measure calls for scrap dealers to record the make, model and license plate numbers of vehicles used to transport a certain amount of salvaged copper, brass, bronze and aluminum.
- And in Washington state, where scrap dealers already must record their suppliers’ identities, lawmakers are considering stiffer penalties for copper thieves, including a year tacked on to the standard theft sentence and guaranteed prison time. A botched copper theft in Washington last month knocked out cable TV service to 50,000 customers for most of the day.
The precautions are similar to those commonly required of pawn brokers.
“It’s come to the point where this has to be done,” said Illinois state Sen. Bill Haine.
Questions on enforcing existing laws
Scrap dealers are not so sure. Steve Hirsch, associate counsel for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, said many jurisdictions already have laws requiring scrap yards to log their customers, but those laws often are not enforced.
Some of the other measures would be too burdensome, including proposals requiring that all scrap metal purchases be held for at least 30 days before the seller gets paid, Hirsch said. He said scrap yard owners would have to maintain numerous piles of material — each labeled with the seller’s name — that would take up a lot of room and cost dealers money.
“Their business is to process that material quickly,” he added, noting that the price of copper can fluctuate 15 to 20 cents in a day.
For more than a decade, the recyclers organization has policed itself, maintaining a network under which scrap dealers across the country are notified — in recent years by e-mail — of metal thefts, Hirsch said.
Tearing out the walls
In desperately poor East St. Louis, Ill., the city’s many vacant buildings are plundered with staggering frequency.
“It’s bad. It’s daily, and it’s a nightmare,” Detective Ken Berry said. Thieves tear out walls to reach the wiring and pipes, often causing thousands of dollars in damage, usually for small amounts of metal.
Berry said that without logs, fingerprints or some other sort of information to tie thieves to scrap yards, police are powerless.
“If we don’t catch these guys in the act,” he said, “there’s nothing we can do.”