Copper thieves menace Westside and beyond

       On the Westside in recent months, thieves have stolen decorative gutters from a café/art gallery, outside wiring from several Old Colorado City businesses, plumbing from the original Midland school and thousands of dollars worth of materials in more than 20 burglaries from the Center at Centennial rehabilitation facility construction site.
       A common denominator in all of these thefts is copper. The problem is not just local. With prices nationally rising to about $3 a pound, criminals everywhere are seeing easy financial opportunities in the commonly used metal. They steal the stuff, then sell it to metal salvage yards, if they can get away with it. Sometimes they even come back and burglarize the salvage yards themselves - thefts occur at his place often as once a week, according to Joe Koscove, owner of Koscove Scrap Metal at 411 W. Colorado Ave. And his brother Dave, who has a similar operation off Las Vegas Street, is having a similar experience, he said.
       Other metals, such as aluminum or steel, are also causing theft problems, but not as much as copper, which has the highest value.
       Citywide, one of the biggest victims is Colorado Springs Utilities, which is faced with spending a quarter of a million dollars this year alone on equipment replacement costs - a tab that could eventually be passed on to customers, according to Natilia Sibert of Utilities. There also is a safety issue, in that the thieves are “cutting the wires and leaving them exposed,” she said. “So it can be a life-or-death situation. It's happened a lot.”
       Nobody claims to have a comprehensive answer to the problem. Police are frustrated by laws that do not require salvage yards to obtain identification from sellers if the amount is under 25 pounds. “That's where we're getting hit,” said Colorado Springs Police Detective Patrick Mahoney. “They do it piecemeal.”
       Some hope was offered in interviews with two Colorado state representatives whose districts include the Westside. Both Michael Merrifield (D), District 18, and Robert Gardner (R), District 21, expressed interest in writing a new law that would reduce or eliminate the 25-pound exemption. Both had supported a commodities- metal bill in the recently ended 2007 session (it took effect July 1) that tightened up some parts of the law, but did not change the longstanding 25-pound limit.
       The author of the '07 bill, Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, said her effort was in response to a request from the Aurora police chief, but she also understands the bill was really “just a first step. We will most definitely continue conversations with law enforcement to see where we need to improve it.”
       Merrifield said he would “probably cosponsor” a new bill with Todd regarding the 25-pound “loophole,” as he put it.
       Gardner was a little less certain, saying he wanted to talk to Mahoney and consider the impact of adding more requirements on businesses. Merrifield added his own concern about having a law that might lead to police arresting more people than the jails could hold.
       Koscove isn't waiting for legislation. He recently implemented his own policy of requiring identification from anybody who wants to sell him copper or other metals, regardless of weight. “It's going to be a lot more paperwork, but I'm so tired of dealing with this,” he said, noting that he also is now videotaping all his transactions (in keeping with a section of the new law). “I want to catch the thief as much as anybody.”
       To give an idea of the interest in scrap metal, Koscove said his books show transactions with 3,100 people since just March 1.
       If there's a typical type of copper thief, it's a person who used to be in construction (and thus knows how best to rob a work site) and has become a methampetamine addict, explained Mahoney, who has become the Police Department's metal-theft specialist. “They don't care,” he said. “They have one thing on their mind, and they will cause thousands and thousands of dollars in damage just to make a few hundred dollars.”
       However, his estimate that 95 percent of the copper burglaries are meth-related was questioned by Koscove. At his own business, he said 80 percent of his sales are from contractors. Of the remaining, smaller transactions, if any mind-altering substance is most often involved, it's alcohol, he said. “Two minutes after I pay them, I see them walk right over to the liquor store,” he said.
       Mahoney described how and where the thefts typically occur. “There are a lot of buildings going up, being redone, or being demolished, and that's a smorgasbord for a criminal,” he said.
       But there are plenty of other targets, as the Westside experience indicates. Even city parks have been victimized, Mahoney pointed out.
       What citizens can do is watch for people trespassing and poking around private properties late at night.
       Businesses themselves can improve their lighting, get a letter of trespass on their property (so police can arrest anyone they see there during off-hours, no questions asked) and put items in secure areas, he said.

Westside Pioneer article