Law enforcement officials in York County are trying new approaches to reduce thefts of copper and other metals from vacant homes, businesses, cell towers, storm drains and other places.
Copper and scrap metal thefts have been on the rise again this year, prompting the York County Sheriff's Office and Rock Hill police to look for ways to catch the thieves in the act.
Police have had some success with surveillance of areas targeted for metal theft and public safety checkpoints.
For several months the York County Sheriff's Office has conducted "Operation Iron Man," watching areas across the county that are most likely to be targeted for metal thefts, Lt. Mike Baker said.
So far, deputies have arrested more than 18 people on charges related to metal thefts, Baker said.
"We've been watching metal at places like industrial areas, pull-offs on the side of the road and vacant buildings," Baker said. "If someone steals it, we come in and make an arrest.
"People who think they'll get extra bucks by stealing metal don't expect us to be there. They could end up in prison."
Operation Iron Man hopes to catch thieves making off with car rims, air-conditioning units, catalytic converters and copper, he said.
Reports of metal thefts have been consistently flooding area departments over the last six months, and have picked up in Rock Hill since January.
"It's a steady trend," Baker said. "With metal prices staying high, we want to do all we can to prevent these crimes."
Copper prices soared last year, but have dropped recently. Metal recyclers, who get roughly $4 per pound, pay $1.50 per pound to people bringing in metal.
Rock Hill police have dedicated one detective to investigate metal thefts, identify repeat offenders and educate other officers, said Lt. Brent Allmon.
Officers are patrolling areas hardest hit, mostly around downtown Rock Hill, he said.
Metal thefts are one of the few crimes on the rise locally, according to the department's 2010 Crime Analysis Report. Recently, Rock Hill police received reports of metal thefts at an unoccupied home, a church and even from utility poles.
In one case, someone crawled under an East Black Street residence and took copper pipes and wires valued at $500.
On Lucky Lane, a man doing maintenance on a vacant rental property discovered the copper pipes had been stolen when he tried to turn on the outside water spigot.
"They must go out there at night time because no one in the area saw anything. They got every bit of the copper," said the maintenance man, who did not want to be identified.
"It's awful," he said. "They'll stealing anything metal these days. Cleaned out all of the copper."
Last week, the air-conditioning unit outside a Fundamental Bible Church was pillaged with a 4-foot piece of pipe taken.
This week metal was stolen from four air-conditioning units outside First Calvary Baptist Church on Crawford Road.
The value of metal taken in cases like these is minimal compared to the cost to replace and repair the damages, Allmon said.
"The damage is often four or five times greater than the value of the copper," he said. "A thief will go into an (air conditioning) unit worth about $6,000 and maybe takes $200 worth of copper. It leaves it so the whole unit needs to be replaced.
"The perpetual cycle of theft is far reaching. In businesses and vacant homes, it can drive costs up. The cost to replace plumbing or cell tower parts stolen and damage done in the process is often passed on to other consumers involved."
Police charged two Rock Hill men, both 37, with receiving stolen property last Wednesday after a caller saw two men cutting wires from utility poles. Officers stopped a truck matching the tipster's description and found $100 worth of freshly cut copper wire.
Officers linked that wire to a nearby utility pole.
Such tips are key to curbing this crime trend, Allmon said.
"If people see someone carrying a new TV down the street, they call us," he said. "But they don't always call when they see someone carrying what looks like trash down the street."
Stealing wire from utility poles and storm grates are not just nuisance crimes, they also create public safety issues, Baker said.
Working with scrap yards
Officers are working with scrap yards to make sure they follow state laws, to identify people selling stolen metals and recover stolen property.
"We routinely visit and monitor the scrap yards. Oftentimes, we're able to recover some of the stolen property. It's often converted or destroyed before it's identified," Baker said.
State law already requires permits to transport more than 25 pounds of metal, including copper wire, pipe and bars, aluminum and catalytic converters. Officers in Rock Hill conducted a checkpoint last week, looking for violators, Allmon said.
At checkpoints, officers also look for unsafe loads, as unsecured scrap parts and metal often fly off vehicles, landing in the road and become a traffic hazard.
Earlier this month, law enforcement officers told state legislators they needed help fighting metal thefts, a top crime in some of South Carolina's rural counties.
Proposed legislation would require anyone selling copper to have a permit issued by the local sheriff. As proposed, metal recyclers could not buy scrap copper from anyone without that permit, and could not pay cash for copper.
A serious crime
"Scrappers" often don't think about the damages caused or the severity of stealing copper because some see it as abandoned property, Allmon said.
Another way they are fighting metal thefts is charging suspects with felonies, Allmon said.
Earlier this month, a jury found 54-year-old Johnny Crockett of Rock Hill guilty in the theft of $5,000 in stolen metal and damage done to CTR, a business on Porter Road, Allmon said.
Crockett was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Allmon said.
In York County court last week, two men pleaded guilty to petty larceny in connection to metal thefts. Timothy Barnett Jr., 24, and Troy Ross Jr., 23, of Clover were sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay restitution, according to court records.
In addition to jail time, fines and restitution, metal thieves may also lose their vehicles, Baker said. State law allows police to seize vehicles used in thefts.
Last week, deputies seized a truck from a man they arrested after catching him stealing metal near Fort Mill.
"That's something someone trying to make a buck on some stolen metal might not think about," he said.