Copper a new prize for thieves

LAWRENCEVILLE - Now that copper is fetching a pretty penny as scrap metal, thefts are increasing across the country. Gwinnett County is no exception.

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

Copper is used commonly for plumbing and in the electrical and electronics industries, thus is widely available to a cunning thief. Especially in unoccupied homes under construction and in businesses that are closed nights and weekends.

According to arrest warrants, three men were caught last week trying to steal communication wire made of copper from a storage yard for the city of Norcross at 800 Mitchell Road. The copper wire was valued at between $300 and $400.

Steve Lee Vlado, 22, of Chamblee, Archie Thompson, 18, of Atlanta, and Robert Jace, 32, of Marietta, apparently used bolt cutters to cut a padlock and access the storage yard. Police believe they planned to load a stolen minivan with the wire and sell it as scrap.

All three men were charged with criminal trespass and theft.

In an unrelated incident in February, two men were arrested for allegedly trying to swipe the copper bars off a cell phone tower on Merchant Drive in Norcross. A concerned resident reportedly saw Gabriel Simon Knott, 22, of Lawrenceville, and Ryan Van Hovey, 19, of Buford, backing their vehicle away from a cell phone tower after cutting about 30 copper bars off the tower.

The bars were worth about $120 each, a police report said. A subsequent search of the suspects' vehicle also yielded a loaded sub machine gun with a silencer on the end, a small bag containing cocaine and three prescription narcotics pills and a backpack containing various tools for cutting.

Both men are facing multiple charges related to theft, drug possession and possession of a concealed weapon.

Gwinnett County Police Department spokesman Cpl. Darren Moloney said many of the recent copper thefts have been occurring at new subdivisions that are under construction.

"We have seen an increase in that type of theft from new houses," Moloney said. "A lot of neighborhoods are actually hiring private security."

If an officer suspects someone of stealing construction materials, a long-standing county ordinance authorizes police to pull over vehicles between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. and request proof of ownership, Moloney said.

Some builders have started adding a surcharge for customers requesting copper plumbing and other builders have stopped installing it altogether, said Sid Mealor, president of Plumbing Distributors Incorporated, a plumbing supply store in Lawrenceville.

"I've heard that some builders are going to quit using copper tubing not because of the high cost but because it is being stolen off the job sites," Mealor said. "We are seeing shortages of copper tube and also it is very expensive right now. In 12 months' time it has more than doubled."

Mealor said that while copper has always been the standard for water pipe installation, but many people seeking to avoid thefts are turning to other products made with plastic or polyethylene as a replacement.