Soaring prices for metal creates incentive for robbers

All metal seems to be fair game
February 24, 2008 11:31:14 AM PST
Any metal that can be carted away, ranging from bleachers at a football field in Summit to wires at electrical substations, appear to be fair game for thieves encouraged by rising prices for scrap. Other pilfered items include a church bell in Lodi, street lamps and the stainless steel pieces for an Olympic-size pool.

"The cost of all metal is up," Woodbridge Deputy Police Chief Philip Dinicola told The Star-Ledger of Newark in Sunday's editions. "In a slacking economy, it's an easy buck."

At least 25 cell phone towers in New Jersey have been stripped of the copper grounding bars that protect them from damage during lightning strikes, which phone carriers said will cost them $125,000 to repair.

Investigators don't yet know if the thefts are the work of one or more groups, South Brunswick Police Chief Raymond Hayducka told the newspaper.

Police from 20 departments in Middlesex, Morris, Somerset and Hunterdon counties met this month with Verizon, one of the phone carriers affected, about the issue.

Electrical stations for Public Service Electric & Gas and Jersey Central Power & Light have seen copper grabbed.

"Our area has been plagued by that," said Saddle Brook Police Chief Robert Kugler, president of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police. "Suspects were entering the Public Service grounds in the late hours or early morning and ripping out the grounding wires, and those were being sold."

Fueled by demand in China and other Asian nations, copper now gets about $3.50 a pound, close to the record $4 reached in May, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Aluminum and steel, though cheaper than copper, are near record prices.

As a result, metal thieves around the nation are snatching items such as manhole covers and gravestone plaques.

Police departments have created task forces. Trenton started one in mid-December, and the squad has made more than three dozen arrests, Sgt. Pedro Medina told The Star-Ledger.

"The problem has grown to the point where we felt we had to have a concentrated group of cops to slow it down," Medina said.

The sections of the pool were in five storage trailers in Woodbridge. The pool is owned by Blue Streak Aquatic Swim Club of Warren which was searching for its permanent home. The steel was taken sometime between Dec. 30 and mid-January. Pumps and the liner were left behind.

"That makes it appear that more than likely they were taking it for scrap," Dinicola said. "A pool that size, you're not going to put it in without people seeing it."