Copper thieves target highway light wiring, costing taxpayers thousands

Published: Thursday, Jan. 5 2012 2:10 p.m. MST

UDOT spokesman Vic Saunders talks Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, about 7,000 feet of copper wire worth $17,000 being stolen from the highway lighting system in Centerville.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

CENTERVILLE — A Parrish Lane exit ramp on Legacy Highway goes dark when the sun goes down because the lights are out of order again.

Thieves recently ripped copper wire right out of the lights on Legacy Parkway, and the Utah Department of Transportation says it needs to put an end to it.

"Copper has such a high value that people are willing to take it from anywhere," Centerville police officer Rolynn Snow said.

For a couple of years now, thieves have targeted the wiring in the lighting on Utah highways.

"It's costing UDOT and taxpayers thousands of dollars to get this replaced, and it's getting obnoxious and needs to stop," said Valentino Martinez, UDOT's maintenance supervisor for that area.

One of his maintenance crews discovered the recent theft, which they believe happened sometime in the last week of December. Thieves stole 7,000 feet of wire that weighed about 300 pounds and is valued at $17,000. 

It's the second time thieves have hit this location. Last time, they made off with 10,000 feet of wire.

"At this interchange alone, we've lost nearly $50,000 in copper wire," said UDOT spokesman Vic Saunders.

In 2010, Utah lost more than $200,000 worth of copper wire from lights along the Wasatch Front, and labor costs make it even more expensive.

"The damage that's been done here is something that can't be redone in a matter of days," Saunders said.

The thieves cut the wire at the junction box at the base of each of the light poles. Then they tie the wire to the bumper of a truck, take off and rip the wire right out of the ground.

"Anywhere they can get their hands on this copper wiring, they're taking it from everywhere," said Snow, who calls copper theft a growing trend.

Snow says the thieves strip the insulation and try to sell the copper to recyclers. "Once they get the copper, they'll break it down into smaller portions and then turn it in; maybe not all at once," he explained.

At Metro Recycling in Salt Lake, they ask for proof of ownership so they don't end up with stolen metal.

"In the long run, it doesn't do us any good to buy stolen materials from the general public, or anybody," said Chris Bond, a vice president with the company.  

If a company buys stolen material, and the rightful owner later claims it, the company loses. Bond says most major recyclers now work with police on the Wasatch Front, and Metro Recycling got an alert of this crime Wednesday. 

Bond says other cooperating recyclers got the same alert with details of the crime. "We're just waiting for these thieves, whoever they are, to bring this stuff in so we can catch them," he said.

But criminals may unload the stolen wire out of state, or in rural areas. Bond says local recyclers, the police and the district attorney have worked together to make a big dent in the crime in recent years, but the criminals often find ways to make money on the metal.

This time, though, Snow says the thieves left evidence.

"We are fairly confident and hopeful that if we pull what we need to out of the evidence, we'll be able to locate a suspect," he said.

If someone is spotted messing around at the base of a light, witnesses are asked to call the police. UDOT never pulls the wire out, so that should be a red flag.

Lights that aren't working could be another sign of theft. UDOT asks that nonworking lights be reported to the department.

E-mail: jboal@ksl.com

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