Police team to target metal crooks

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A Gwinnett police unit formed to stem the ongoing problem of metal theft and secondary sales has cracked its first case, officials said Friday.

Gwinnett police launched a metal theft unit Monday whose aim is to investigate crimes involving metal theft -- including copper -- and to ensure that metal recyclers comply with state law. The measure was taken in reaction to an ongoing problem more than a spike in crime, said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith.

"These cases have been investigated by different units in the past, but a unit focusing particularly on this type of crime will help," Smith said. "The benefit ... is that the detectives will quickly become experts on this particular type of crime, the resources available (and) the facilities typically involved."

Exhibit A presented itself Wednesday, police said.

Detectives investigating the theft of steel I-beams at GP Enterprises in Auburn consulted footage from security cameras installed after prior thefts. From that, they noted the tag number of a gray pickup recorded transporting the I-beams, Smith said.

The vehicle was tracked to Thomas Lee Davis, 56, who was arrested in Hoschton by Barrow County authorities. He's charged with felony theft by taking in the ongoing investigation, Smith said.

Detectives tracked the stolen I-beams to a secondary metal recycler in Auburn. A receipt of the sale was turned over to detectives, and the I-beams were recovered and returned to GP Enterprises.

"Detectives are investigating the likely possibility that Davis had accomplices in this case," Smith said.

The metal recycler's documents were instrumental in confirming the crime and recovering the property, Smith said.

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

Georgia legislators enacted a law in 2007 which makes stealing and selling 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.

In light of a recent spate of manhole cover thefts, the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources issued a call Friday for residents to be on the lookout. Thieves have resorted to stealing Gwinnett County-owned manhole and drop inlet covers from sanitary and stormwater sewers, as well as cast iron water meter covers, officials said.

Officials urge residents to call Gwinnett police at (770) 513-5100 or Water Resources at (678) 376-7000 if they spot anyone removing manhole covers who is not a Water Resources staff person in a Gwinnett County vehicle. County vehicles are clearly marked and Water Resources employees wear uniforms.

"Missing manhole covers are a serious safety hazard for children, animals and adults, particularly at night," said Jeff Boss, Field Operations and Maintenance Division director.