On the outside, a vacant industrial building doesn’t seem like it would offer much to an aspiring criminal.
Its sometimes shattered windows and weedy doors don’t seem very appealing to a money-hungry crook, and the thousands of square feet of nothingness inside seem to fit the likes of a homeless person more than a thief.
Yet the area's increasing number of vacant warehouses keep getting hit, not for heavy equipment or luxurious items inside, but for a much simpler product that can pay off big — copper wiring.
Newton is one of the hardest-hit areas.
Since May 2010, there have been 17 copper-related thefts at three different vacant industrial buildings in Newton.
The thefts have robbed buildings of hundreds of feet of wiring that thieves can often sell to recycling companies for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
The most recent — and largest — copper theft occurred in December 2011, when a large amount of copper wiring was stolen from a vacant warehouse in Newton.
Police say thieves broke into an unoccupied warehouse at 2855 Nathan St. in Newton on Dec. 13, 2011, and stole a large amount of copper wiring.
The theft was so large that The Hadley Company, which owns the robbed warehouse, estimates it will cost nearly $200,000 to replace and fix what the thieves stole.
Hadley is offering a $2,000 cash reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspects responsible for the thefts and subsequent damage.
The Hadley building is one of several that have been hit multiple times, including the old Ridgeview Hosiery plant and the former Hickory House Furniture building on North Ashe Avenue, said Newton Police Capt. Tim Hayes.
Hayes said other copper wiring thefts, including some at area homes, date back to 2004.
“The vast majority of what they are taking is copper and wiring,” Hayes said. “For the most part, they are targeting the larger, industrial facilities that have the larger cable inside.”
Despite the large number of copper thefts, Hayes said he doesn’t think many are related. He said there have been one or two incidents, however, where suspects have hit buildings two or three times.
“It’s more by happenstance that these people are deciding to do this,” he said.
Since noticing the copper-theft trend last year, Newton police say they have stepped up their monitoring of the area’s vacant buildings, especially on the industrial warehouses that have already been targeted.
In October 2011, Newton Police arrested a trio of copper thieves at the Hickory House Furniture plant on North Ashe Avenue.
According to police reports, Newton Police responded to Hickory House Furniture at about 9:45 p.m. Oct. 18, 2011, after a caller reported a suspicious person arriving at the business.
When officers arrived, they observed lights and noises coming from inside the business. After officers established a perimeter around the building and called for backup, two men ran from the back of the building.
A Newton police officer caught and arrested Sean Christopher Blankenship, 41, of Hickory, but the second man escaped.
Officers quickly learned that the second man, Eli Daniel Larue, traveled to a residence on West 27th Street in Newton.
Cops caught Larue and a female accomplice, Crystal Dawn Beard, at the residence. Blankenship was charged with breaking and entering and possession of burglary tools. Larue was charged with breaking and entering, and Beard was charged with aiding and abetting breaking and entering. Newton police have also caught copper thieves red-handed.
During a winter sting operation in 2011, Newton officers arrested multiple suspects in the process of cutting copper wiring at the old Ridgeview Hosiery plant, said Maj. Kevin Yarborough.
He said officers apprehended multiple people who were carrying heavy cutting tools and electricity meters, in addition to already-cut pieces of copper wiring.
Yarborough said some of the old warehouses have been hit so many times that the insides are useless.
“The one that has seen the most damage is the old Hickory House Furniture building,” Yarborough said. “The owner says there’s been so much damage that it’s not even useful anymore.”
To date, Newton police have arrested and charged six suspects in copper thefts, with indictments pending on seven additional suspects for the incidents.
Word of the arrests may be getting around as well, as there have been no copper thefts since the large-scale heist in December, Yarborough said.
Local communication manufacturer CommScope believes it has developed a copper wiring product that will reduce area thefts.
The company's new GroundSmart Copper Clad Steel wire, which has a steel core and copper exterior, still provides an appropriate electrical conduit, but makes the product less valuable to thieves.
“It’s less copper and there’s virtually no salvage value to it,” said Joe Depa, CommScope’s corporate communication manager.
Surrounded by copper, the new wire still acts as an appropriate grounding wire, but is less valuable to thieves because of its steel core, Depa said.
The product also appears to be a win-win for clients because of its cost, as it produces nearly a 20 percent savings compared to buying pure copper, he said.
“Companies trying to protect their copper infrastructure have been going to extreme measures to deter theft, many of which are neither successful nor cost effective," said Doug Wells, vice president of outside plant solutions for broadband at CommScope. "Companies have increased security around their plants, going as far as laser-etching their cables so they can be traced when they are stolen. Others have coated cables with a special liquid that leaves a stain detectable under ultraviolet light. Despite efforts like these, thieves continue to steal copper because of its rising value. The result is costly damage to networks and growing service disruptions."
Who buys it?
Copper theft has become a national problem due to its difficulty to trace.
It has become such an issue that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a warning in recent years, stating that copper theft is a threat to critical homeland infrastructure.
In a 2009 survey published by the Electrical Safety Foundation International, utilities in the United States reported approximately $60 million in losses and 450,000 minutes of outage time annually because of copper theft.
After copper is stolen, it can be melted down, manipulated and sold to a scrap metal yard for up to $4 a pound. There’s almost no way to know it’s stolen.
“We do accept it, but there’s no way of us telling it’s stolen unless we have a police report,” a representative of Mountain Recycling in Hickory said Tuesday.
Currently, Mountain Recycling said it buys No. 1 copper for $3.14 a pound and the No. 2 for $2.95 — prices the representative said change daily.
“It’s common to see it every day,” the representative said.
Lisa Exine, the manager at Dwain’s Industrial Scrap & Waste Inc. in Denver, said the company also accepts copper wiring, with some precautions.
“Anytime somebody has an issue or has stuff that has been stolen, we make sure they file the police report, make a description of what they are missing, and if something comes across our store that matches it, we let the police department know,” Exine said. “All of our customer tickets — the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office gets a copy of them as well.”