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Federal law would put scrap metal thieves behind bars

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Prices for scrap metal have climbed over the past five years, dealers say, and so has a corresponding number of thieves in Watertown who have stolen metals to quickly pad their wallets.

Federal legislation backed by U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer is designed to make thieves think twice, however, by threatening long prison sentences.

The Metal Theft Prevention Act would make stealing metal from roads, bridges and schools a felony. It also would tighten requirements for scrap dealers, who would have to keep detailed records of all purchases.

“It is time to put thieves who steal scrap metal from homes, schools, infrastructure and even vets’ graves behind ironclad bars,” Mr. Schumer said during a press conference Thursday in Syracuse, where metal thefts have increased by 50 percent this year.

Because of high prices, people from all walks of life have been turning in more material at Perkins Scrap Metals, 129 Factory Square, said owner Edward F. Perkins Jr. But many customers are taking metals from wherever they can find them, frequently old equipment without the property owners’ consent.

“You may have about 60 percent that are doing it right, but 40 percent are beating the bush to find this stuff,” Mr. Perkins said. “They’re taking it from farms and places where it’s sitting at fields, and that’s the criminal element at work.”

Compared to a decade ago, Mr. Perkins said, prices for ferrous and non-ferrous scrap metals like steel, aluminum, cast iron, copper and brass have skyrocketed. Steel that used to go for $50 to $75 a ton now gets roughly $200; the price of copper has jumped from 70 cents to $2.80 a pound.

“Price is the main driver of crime and it’s made people bolder,” Mr. Perkins said. “Whether it’s a building that sits idle or burned down after a fire, they’ll strip it of the plumbing and wiring before the insurance company gets there.”

The law also would cap the amount of cash dealers can pay out at $100; transactions above that would need to be paid by check.

Mr. Perkins said his scrap dealership already stores customers’ receipts and driver’s license information to help provide more information to police officers investigating cases. This fall, the business will switch to a computer database to store customers’ records after it moves to its new location at 301 Pearl St. The former Black Clawson site is being retrofitted by Empire Recycling Corp., Utica, which bought the company.

The Watertown City Police Department has reported a spike in crime over the past five years. Detective Sergeant Joseph R. Donoghue said unemployed people and drug addicts often are the suspects.

The department has received an increase in larceny complaints “at houses that have been abandoned, or vacant businesses that are in the process of being sold or not utilized all the time,” Mr. Donoghue said. The thieves “will steal the pipes and strip the wires and wind up selling them at the local yards.”

And while thieves may get away with a few hundred dollars, the cost to repair buildings takes a toll on the community. “They’ll get pennies compared to the cost of repair and replacing what they steal,” Mr. Donoghue said. “Plumbers and electricians need to be hired to rewire and install pipes.”

Thefts of manhole covers and other infrastructure can endanger the public, too.

As a case in point, one Watertown man was arrested seven times last year on a slew of larceny charges stemming from metal thefts. He was accused of, among other things, stealing 11 steel sidewalk frames owned by the city and selling them for $66 apiece to a scrap metal buyer, stealing copper and aluminum from hardware stores and stealing a manhole cover.

Misdemeanor charges for such crimes can include burglary, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and petit larceny.

“Depending on previous convictions, someone could wind up in state prison, or get probation and/or fines,” Mr. Donoghue said.

After opening in 2011, Ellisburg-based R.F. Rogers & Sons Scrap Metal Recycling, 13640 Route 193, already has seen a noticeable increase in customer traffic spurred by higher scrap metal prices. Tony J. Rogers, who co-owns the business with brother Timothy A. and father, Ronald F., said police have investigated five theft cases since the business opened, two of which resulted in convictions. Tony Rogers said the business has turned away customers who have brought truckloads of suspicious items.

“It’s definitely gotten a lot worse,” Mr. Rogers said. “One customer tried to get through with a load of railroad spikes” that were stolen.

The dealer accepts a wide range of metals as well as cars, trucks and tractor equipment, and the owners plan to install a larger scale and an automated security system in the fall. The security system, used at large scrap dealers in the Syracuse area, works like an ATM machine and dispenses cash after customers sign in, storing a full record of all of their transactions.

Mr. Rogers thinks the combination of security measures and the proposed federal law making thefts a felony could significantly curtail crime in the city.

Making thefts a felony “would put a kibosh on them,” he said. “I’m sure they would second-guess what they’re doing with more of a consequence.”

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