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Man indicted for string of copper thefts at cell towers

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Investigators believe one man was behind a scourge of lucrative copper thefts at cellphone towers across Gwinnett earlier this year, the latest twist in a crime trend that's targeted everything from air-conditioning units to light fixtures at county parks.

Gwinnett police believe Stone Mountain resident Timothy Jacob Johnson, 35, pocketed more than $20,000 after ripping copper from at least six towers between August 2010 and February. Specifically, Johnson coveted copper wire and "grounding bars" mounted to the towers or adjacent buildings that prevent damage from lightning strikes, according to an investigator's report.

A Gwinnett grand jury last week indicted Johnson on six felony counts of theft by taking.

Investigators honed in on Johnson after a Gwinnett County Jail inmate dropped his name during an unrelated interview in January. Police pulled a recycling history from a Norcross scrapyard showing Johnson has sold $21,382 in copper in the previous four months, the report states.

Evidence continued to mount when employees at a tower site in Norcross set up motion-activated surveillance in the wake of several thefts. The camera caught Johnson's Ford Taurus on tape minutes before he sold an 80-pound load of copper wire to the recycling center, the report states.

"I believe (Johnson) is responsible for a majority or all of the cellphone tower thefts in Gwinnett County that have occurred over recent months," which totaled as many as 25 thefts, an investigator wrote in February.

Officers set up surveillance on the recycling center and apprehended Johnson when he drove there Feb. 19. Meanwhile, police charged an alleged accomplice, Alfred Gilliard, of Atlanta, with possessing copper that Johnson had stolen from a tower site off Roswell Road in Atlanta.

In interviews, Johnson allegedly admitted to stealing from five tower sites in Gwinnett and two in DeKalb County.

"He stated there were more, (but) he could not remember the locations," an investigator wrote.

The indictment alleges Johnson pilfered copper the following towers in Gwinnett:

In August, a Metro PCS tower at 851 Beaver Ruin Road in Norcross;

In December, a Sprint tower at 720 Old Snellville Highway in Lawrenceville and a Metro PCS tower at 3134 Five Forks Trickum Road in Lilburn;

In January, a Clearwire tower at 4708 South Old Peachtree Road in Norcross;

And in February, an AT&T tower at 2324 Meadow Church Way in Duluth and the same Clearwire tower in Norcross.

Johnson is also charged with carrying less than an ounce of marijuana upon his arrest.

Gilliard remains at the Gwinnett County Jail on multiple charges of theft by receiving and obstruction of law enforcement.

Johnson served more than a month in jail before being released on $20,800 bond in March. Jail records list him as being employed by a Lawrenceville electric company; a representative at that business on Monday said Johnson had not worked there any time recently, if at all. Johnson could not be reached for comment Monday.

Police throughout Georgia have dealt with a scourge of copper 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 were made.