It comes down to numbers. Simple math.
“It’s supply and demand,” said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. “It’s a business.”
As the market value for recycled copper—currently pushing $4 a pound—has skyrocketed in recent years, so has the rate of theft related to the increasingly more precious metal. This trend has not escaped Escambia County.
“This is an issue we finally got our arms around,” said Morgan, as he waited for today’s press conference to begin.
After a “lengthy, several week investigation” local authorities have apparently disrupted the area’s black-market copper market. The sheriff’s office announced today that they have snared 37 people suspected of stealing and recycling copper in the county.
“Some are connected and some aren’t,” said Lt. Ray Briggs.
Of the 37 copper-theft suspects nabbed in Escambia County, 27 are being charged with stealing metal, while 10 will be charged with burglary. There are also some fraud charges related to the arrests. Sheriff Morgan said some of the cases will probably lead authorities into Pensacola’s city limits.
Authorities reported that they were tipped off to the copper thefts from various sources, including citizens, businesses and scrap yards. A weight or estimated value of the copper in question was unavailable.
“It’s not just somebody going out and stealing an air conditioner or a copper gutter off someone’s roof,” explained Briggs.
In addition to small-ticket, A/C-type thefts, copper piping was also yanked out of buildings. The local power company was apparently a prime target.
“One of our primary victims in this community is Gulf Power,” Briggs said, explaining that the company actually makes the rounds to the scrap yards when its industry-specific copper goes missing. “They have so many items that are unique to their industry, they’re the only one’s that have them.”
Another facet of the local thefts appears to directly involve scrap yards, where metal is taken for buy-back and recycling. The sheriff’s office reported that employees at the yards were collaborating with copper thieves, basically cheating the scales and splitting the profits.
“These businesses, these scrap yards, we’re actually being ripped off,” Briggs said, listing the yards as Southern Scrap and Wise scrap. “They’ve been very cooperative because they were the victim.”
According to the sheriff’s office, some suspects were caught in the act of stealing copper and others were connected via other means. The charges, the office reported, are expected to stand up in court.
“Sure,” said Briggs.
“Oh, absolutely,” Morgan agreed.
The Sheriff said that such crime is a symptom of the market place: as long as copper prices remain high, so too will the theft rate.
“You’re kind of chasing a shadow,” Morgan said.
In addition to risking a run-in with the law, copper thieves also put themselves at danger. Sgt. James Hall provided a photograph of a man sporting a severly burnt hand. The man had been injured while attempting to steal copper from a Gulf Power substation—receiving a jolt of electricity as he stood perched on an overturned five-gallon bucket for a better reach.
“Now, Gulf Power thought he was probably dead and somebody had taken him out of there,” Hall said.
Turns out the man survived and was later apprehended in Seattle, WA. When pulling the copper from the substation the man apparently had his arm bent, thus diverting the electricity. Had his arm been held straight, the current would have most probably continued arcing straight to his heart.
“Probably once a week in the U.S. somebody gets cooked,” Hall said.