Copper Thieves: Harmless criminals or urban terror?

by Oct 9, 2013 9:14 am Tags: , , , , ,

The explosion at UC Berkeley on Oct. 1, which is suspected by the UCB police department to be the work of copper thieves, raises some questions regarding the possibility of that happening on our own campus.

Copper plumbing in MacQuarrie Hall was reported stolen on Sept. 25 at SJSU according to Sgt. John Laws of the University Police Department. He said the case is still an open investigation and the suspect is still at large.

He said materials for the fire sprinkler system were stolen when the residence halls were being renovated, but he did not have the information on hand to remember when. 

Laws said he believed it was copper that was stolen that time as well, but could not confirm that information either.

"Building materials are always at a high risk for theft," he said. 

He said he encourages the SJSU community to be alert and on the lookout for suspicious activity, and trusts that the university's  construction vendor will take every precaution possible to prevent loss.

According to Ana Ortega, a manager at the San Jose Metals Recycling Center, the trade-in value of copper is anywhere between $2 and $2.70, based on the market.

"We receive about 5,000 pounds a week, on average," Ortega said.

The recycling center also trades in other metals in addition to copper, according to a cashier at San Jose Metals.

Stainless steel is worth $0.08 to $0.25 cents per pound, and aluminum will fetch $0.10 to $0.50, said the cashier.

Furthermore, she said brass can sell for anywhere from $0.15 to $0.90 per pound if it is dirty, or up to $1.35 if clean and free from rust.

While San Jose Metals might sound like a good place for thieves to fence their goods, Ortega said they take extra steps to ensure legitimacy and discourage theft.

She said that in addition to taking down the seller's vehicle license plate number and home address, they also require a thumbprint as well as a photo of the clients with the items they are recycling.

According to Ortega, this ensures that customers will not try and bring in stolen materials, because they will be too uncomfortable to take the picture.

She added that they keep the records and pictures on hand in case the police need to check if anything reported stolen or missing had been recycled there. 

Christopher Brown, associate vice president of Facilities, Development and Operations said the sad truth of it is that "the cost of the damage done by the forced removal of copper wiring and plumbing far outweighs the amount of money they are making."

If a thief were to make a profit of $500 to $600 by sabotaging a building's plumbing or wiring, the cost to repair that damage could be in the tens of thousands, he said.

"If they're dealing with electrical equipment, they can electrocute themselves or end up endangering others, such as what happened at UC Berkeley," Brown said. 

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