Gaston & Catawba

Metal thefts vex authorities

Steve Whisnant keeps up the old home place of his in-laws in Catawba County , where he and his wife tend a garden.

One day several weeks ago, he drove from their home in Denver to mow the yard at the Claremont property. When he arrived, he discovered that someone else had recently been there, and not for a friendly visit.

The uninvited guests had broken off the line to an oil tank under the house, leaving oil to drip onto the ground. They busted the lock off the barn and tore into an air-conditioning unit. Then they broke into the granary, where they found nothing to bother.

The reason for the intruders' visit: copper.

A sought-after commodity in today's hot precious-metals market, copper and other metals are attracting a growing number of thieves who steal it from anywhere they can find it and sell it for profit. Catalytic converters on vehicles are another popular target, sold for the valuable platinum.

Thefts have increased over the past year in Catawba County, sheriff's Maj. Coy Reid said. In most cases, violations amount to misdemeanors, and thieves tend to sell the metals easily to scrap-metal recyclers.

Investigators encourage recyclers to report suspicious sellers, say if someone tries to unload a dozen catalytic converters in one visit. But Reid said some recyclers and mechanics will buy stolen goods.

In the past year, the Catawba County Sheriff's Office took reports on thefts of scrap metal valued at an estimated $103,000. Records specialist Lt. Lynn Baker figures the actual value is much higher.

During the same time period, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office processed theft losses of more than $111,000. Those figures don't include reports made to city police departments.

Detectives face the daunting task of catching scrap-metal thieves, who hit homes, businesses and vehicles almost daily. They say it's hard to trace the stolen commodities because the items carry no identifying features.

Reid said thieves hit homes and buildings under construction, churches, electric companies, car sales lots and privately owned vehicles – especially Toyota pickups and 4Runners because they sit higher off the ground than other models. Thieves even go after livestock fencing.

This year Reid's investigators traced one missing catalytic converter to a Statesville mechanic, matching the cut pattern on the vehicle to the stolen converter, much like a fingerprint left on a doorframe. The thieves confessed, Reid said, and the discovery ended up clearing 15 catalytic converter cases.

He doesn't believe there's a network of scrap-metal thieves, just independent opportunists who operate in pairs or trios to look out for witnesses.