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Copper thefts rise with price

LAWRENCEVILLE - For centuries thieves have lusted for silver and gold, but an increased demand for copper is luring them to another precious metal.

The latest of several copper theft-related arrests occurred Wednesday, after 35-year-old Solomon Mayfield and 30-year-old Chrissie Fontaine McGee were caught allegedly stealing copper tubing from air conditioner condensing units at Shumate Mechanical Heating and Air at 2805 Premiere Parkway.

The company lot had been robbed three times in recent days, so two employees decided to lay in wait, hoping to catch suspects in the act. Mayfield and McGee drove onto the property at 12:53 a.m., long after the business closed at 9 p.m.

"I knew they had hit me in consecutive days, and I'll be doggone if they hit me again," said the company's Chief Information Officer Frank Steinocher. "I decided to stay here and wait for them. It's like fishing, and sure enough the fish came back."

Police who confronted Mayfield and McGee discovered they were carrying tools used to remove copper. The pair initially told officers they had permission to be there to take the tubing, but Shumate employees disputed the claim, said Cpl. Darren Moloney, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Police Department.

Mayfield and McGee later admitted taking copper from the same business on an earlier occasion, Moloney said. They reportedly had receipts from recycling the metal for $1,078.

Mayfield was jailed without bond and McGee is being held on $16,835 bond at the Gwinnett County Detention Center for charges related to attempted theft. They join a number of alleged thieves locked up in recent months for stealing copper plumbing, copper bars from cell phone towers and copper wiring in Gwinnett.

Copper has become a hot commodity as a scrap metal, leading to more thefts from businesses or new subdivisions where the metal is used in plumbing, electric and electronics, according to police.

The price of copper has hit record highs because existing sources are declining. The developing economies of China and India are increasingly demanding raw materials for manufacturing. The price for copper inflated by more than 170 percent in the past year, according to Dow Jones Market Watch.

Shumate Air Conditioning and Heating has had more than $50,000 worth of copper taken from two major construction sites in addition to the thefts this week at its Duluth office. The coil from a single air conditioning unit can bring anywhere from $50 to $100 as scrap metal, depending on the size of the unit, Steinocher said.

"When the price of copper was low, we didn't have this many problems," Steinocher said. "When the price goes high, it's fast money for certain people. They think they can rip out copper and make a clean buck."

To combat the problem, the Gwinnett County Police Department organized a copper theft task force consisting of three detectives about six months ago. The detectives are handling cases involving thousands of dollars in thefts each month. They have also arrested one group that claimed to have profited more than $7,000 in one week, Moloney said.

"Copper theft has definitely been booming across the state of Georgia," Moloney said. "Just about every law enforcement agency in metro Atlanta is dealing with the problem."