Copper-theft spree costs businesses $340,000

NORCROSS - Gwinnett police believe a Tucker man has single-handedly cranked up the heat on businesses around Jimmy Carter Boulevard this summer.

Paul Adam Smith, 34, is charged with seven felony counts of theft by taking for allegedly gutting air conditioning units at businesses and shopping centers along the southwestern Gwinnett thoroughfare, according to arrest warrants.

Smith's alleged thievery has cost business owners upwards of $340,000. In each instance, he ripped out copper tubing that renders the units useless but can turn quick profits at scrap yards, police said.

Smith reportedly climbed atop several shopping centers - including Gwinnett Horizons, Carter Rockbridge Plaza, Cedar Village, Smoke Tree Village and Carter Oak - to access the materials between early June and last week.

The most costly hit, documented by police June 13 at Gwinnett Horizons, ruined six units for total damages around $37,000.

Smith remains in the Gwinnett County Jail on $56,400 bond. He's expected to face a judge at a probable cause hearing this morning.

Police throughout Georgia have dealt with a scourge of copper theft in recent years as payouts at scrap metal yards spiked as much as 300 percent.

Experts agree the rise in prices resulted from a domestic copper shortage and a higher demand overseas, particularly from new construction in Asia.

Georgia legislators enacted a law in 2007 which makes stealing and hawking anything from beer kegs to copper tubing a felony if the metal is worth more than $500.

A Gwinnett police special unit meant to thwart copper theft was disbanded in 2006 after several key arrests were made.