It happened in Highland Park last week. And on Forest Hill Avenue two weeks ago. And on Devonshire Road the week before that.
Why do thieves keep stealing copper from houses and buildings in Richmond? It’s not a great way to get rich. Scrap copper pipe sells for around $3 to $3.50 per pound.
But it’s easy to pull off, difficult to prosecute — and targets abound. That’s why copper thefts have more than doubled in Richmond this year. There were 286 reported thefts of copper pipe, wiring and other materials in 2011 as of Dec. 19. In all of 2010 there were 109.
“These aren’t particularly sophisticated crimes,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Thorne-Begland says.
One method is to climb a ladder to strip the gutters from a house. “It’s so open and blatant that most folks just assume that they’re construction workers,” Thorne-Begland says.
Another method is to spot new heating and air-conditioning units that real estate investors have installed, then steal them and smash them for the scrap metal. The thief may get only $35 from a unit that costs thousands. There have been 71 thefts of such units or parts in the city to date in 2011, about the same as last year.
A third method is to sneak under a house to cut the pipes — even if the residents are home. Thorne-Begland says he’s seen cases where the water suddenly stopped flowing while someone’s washing dishes.
One particularly enterprising man moved into an empty supermarket off Hull Street and spent three to four weeks cutting pipes. When the alarm went off, he’d crawl up into the rafters to hide. In the end, Thorne-Begland says, the man did $100,000 to $200,000 worth of damage.
How do you catch a copper thief? It’s not easy. “It’s definitely one of the most frustrating crimes I’ve got going right now,” says Richmond Police Lt. Brian Corrigan, who oversees an area of the North Side.
About a month ago his officers stopped two men riding bicycles after midnight. They were soaking wet and carrying about 70 pounds of copper pipe in the crates on their bikes and a backpack, Corrigan says. They claimed their boss had given them permission to take it. Without a theft reported, and with no way to ascertain where the copper came from, police could do little.
Information often comes from recycling yard operators, who are required to document each load of scrap metal they accept. But the most effective remedy is prevention, Corrigan says: an audible alarm system, a barking dog or attentive neighbors. If you see something weird — call, Corrigan urges: “We’ll decide if it’s suspicious or not, once we get there.”