From climbing cellphone towers to prying up funeral markers, criminals in Oklahoma City are willing to go a long way to cash in on valuable metals.
For many looking for a quick buck, stealing copper, aluminum, bronze, steel and lead, among others, can be worth the risk of fines, jail time and even electrocution.
Anyone can be a victim, including schools, construction sites, cellphone companies, oil and gas sites and utility companies.
Copper wire theft has cost Oklahoma Gas and Electric $130 million since 2005, spokeswoman Karen Kurtz said.
It also cost one Oklahoma City man his life in 2008 when he was shocked by a live power line while trying to steal the copper.
“It’s expensive. It’s dangerous for our employees, and it’s also dangerous for the public,” Kurtz said.
In an effort to curb these expensive and dangerous thefts, Oklahoma City detectives Jeff White and Marty Stupka have been working on the metal theft investigations unit since 2010 to catch the thieves and prevent scrappers from buying stolen goods.
Since forming the unit, White and Stupka, along with the city and state government, have helped shape the laws detailing who is allowed to sell recyclable metals and what scrappers are allowed to buy.
“There are a lot of honest people who make a living doing this,” White said. “It just needs to be done the right way.”
The detectives helped develop a list of items recyclers cannot buy unless the seller can provide proof of ownership or has a special license issued by the city.
White said the list helps discourage thieves from stealing the items because they know they can’t make money selling it, and it also helps scrappers identify stolen property.
The list includes some of the items most commonly stolen, such as wire from cellphone towers and utility substations, as well as anything belonging to a city, utility or railroad.
But the list also includes items not generally associated with common metal theft.
Recyclers also are prohibited from buying more unique items like beer kegs, metal bleachers and funeral markers.
Stupka said even though theft of these items isn’t as common as copper wire, he has seen thieves get creative when looking for metals to sell for scrap.
In 2010, a father and son were caught after stealing more than 400 bronze vases from a local cemetery.
Stupka said he has seen people pry up bronze markers from war veterans and cut them up to pieces to sell for scrap.
“This guy brought some into the dealer and thought they wouldn’t be able to tell,” Stupka said. “We put them back together like a puzzle and busted the guy.”
White said a man once stole the wings off a small airplane and tried to sell them to a local scrap yard.
“The wings were worth thousands of dollars whole, but the metals weren’t worth much,” White said. “This guy cut them up to pieces and got maybe $60.”
When recyclers buy scrap metals, they are required to keep records of whom they bought it from. This makes it easier for the detectives to track down a thief of stolen property that ends up in a scrap yard.
But for Stupka and White to do their jobs they have to rely heavily on the cooperation of the city’s recyclers.
After several years on the job, the detectives have worked up a trust with the business owners in the city, but it wasn’t always that way.
From time to time, the detectives organize sting operations to ensure the recyclers are following the rules and staying away from “don’t buy” items.
“When we first started, we even gave notice to the recyclers that there would be sting operations, and half of them still failed to follow the laws,” White said. “Now, about 90 percent of the recyclers work with us on a regular basis.”
The detectives do weekly checks at the 15 Oklahoma City recycling businesses and check for items reported stolen and make sure no one is buying prohibited items.
Bill Real, office manager at Metal Check, 5700 S High Ave., said it is in the scrap yard’s best interest to work with police. If scrappers are caught knowingly buying stolen property three times, they can lose their license, not to mention all the money they lose when police seize stolen items.
Plus, it usually isn’t hard to spot someone trying to sell stolen goods.
“I can spot them from a mile away,” Real said. “I can usually smell them from even further.”
In the past few years — since stricter laws were put in place and the unit began its investigations — copper wire thefts are down throughout the city, White said.
Kurtz said OG&E spent more than $300,000 on copper wire theft in 2012. That number dropped to $90,000 in 2013, and only $20,000 with five months to go in 2014.
Kurtz said the drop can be attributed to stricter police enforcement, as well as better security on OG&E’s part.
But even as thefts become less rampant, it is still a problem. Just last week, Oklahoma City was the victim of copper theft from several street lamps and traffic signals on an Interstate 40 service road.
“You’re never going to stop it all together,” White said. “But we’re working to cut it down as much as possible.”