11 charged in metals theft ring at historic Buford tannery

Clockwise from top left, Larry Stacy, Steven Childree, James Swansey, Mimi Torbett and Laprincey Watkins.

Clockwise from top left, Larry Stacy, Steven Childree, James Swansey, Mimi Torbett and Laprincey Watkins.

BUFORD -- A steady stream of brass was the initial red flag.

A member of the Gwinnett police metal theft unit traced the brass, which was being sold to a Norcross recycler, to Buford resident Mimi Torbett, 26, and stared asking her questions. She pointed police to her alleged supplier, Larry Timothy Stacy, 42, who explained he'd found a large cache of the valuable metal in a Buford creek.

That explanation, according to police, didn't hold water.

Police believe the real source of the brass was the old Bona Allen Tannery, a historic part of a larger leather-producing complex that put Buford on the map nearly 150 years ago. Further investigation has led police to 11 suspects who profited from selling numerous brass supports and braces that were ripped from the unoccupied Tannery Street building, officials said this week.

The case illustrates an ongoing grapple with metal thieves, or "scrappers," that is more prevalent in Georgia than all but two other states, a recent study shows.

During interviews, Stacy and Steven Childree, 42, admitted to burglarizing the tannery on several occasions and stealing brass, said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith. Both men share an address on Buford's Cloud Street with Torbett, records show.

Investigators are consulting with a third party to determine the true cost of thefts and damages to the circa 1873 property, which helped give rise to Buford's one-time moniker as the "Leather City." The property's owner, Larry Bailey, could not be reached for comment.

So far, police have charged six men and five women in the investigation. Suspects range in age from 80 years old to 26, largely from the downtown Buford area but from as far as Gainesville, Winder and Monroe. Charges include burglary, theft by deception and false statement of ownership. Five suspects remained at-large Friday.

Smith said the suspects aren't strangers to each other.

"I believe they are personal acquaintances, friends of friends, et cetera," he said.

Buford Commission chairman Phillip Beard said metal theft is rampant in the city, as with much of Georgia. He shared an anecdote about a local church replacing $3,000 worth of stolen metals in air-conditioner units -- only to have the metals stolen again.

Beard, however, is encouraged by recent crackdowns.

"The police are well aware of the people that deal in the metals around here and the businesses that buy it," he said.

Gwinnett police launched the metal theft unit in November, with a stated aim to investigate crimes and ensure that metal recyclers comply with state law.

Earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation that places additional requirements on Georgia's metal recyclers and sellers in an effort to curb metal theft.

The bill, which took effect July 1, require sellers to submit to having a photo taken of themselves and what they're selling, and to complete a signed statement that they are legally in possession of the property, among other requirements.

A recent report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau gave Georgia the dubious distinction of having more metal theft claims than every state but Texas and Ohio, respectively.

The review tallied claims between January 2009 and December 2011. With 823 claims, metro Atlanta lagged only Chicago and New York in terms of problematic urban areas.

The price of metal is driven by world markets and has generally spiked since 2007. Manufacturers can save substantially by buying metals from recyclers, as opposed to metals mined and shipped to the United States.

A theft investigator with the Georgia Transmissions Corporation told the Daily Post earlier this year that "scrappers" typically function in groups and will drive long distances to find recyclers paying higher rates.