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.”
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