U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach (LA/LB) seaport in collaboration with the Los Angeles Border Enforcement
U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach (LA/LB) seaport in collaboration with the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Team (LA BEST) and the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) recovered and seized 359 stolen copper ingots worth an estimated $1.25 million. (U.S. Customs & Border Protection)

Customs agents discovered 359 stolen copper ingots worth $1.25 million that were headed to China through the Port of Los Angeles, officials said Tuesday.

The discoveries inside six containers began Oct. 2 and continued through Nov. 6, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers halted the illegal shipments from leaving the ports or ordered them to return after departure.

"This is just unprecedented for us," said Bart Graves, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which began the investigation at a copper mine in Hayden. "This is a situation where the more layers you uncovered, the more intriguing it got."

Arizona agents opened the investigation Sept. 27 when a traffic stop near a mining facility and a subsequent search of a house led to the discovery of stolen copper worth more than $300,000, along with three tractors, three semitrailers, one forklift and two hand carts.

"This is the first that we've seen this," Graves said. "This is a brazen theft of large amounts of copper ingots. These thieves just work with impunity, driving the stuff out on trucks."

Copper ingots are unrefined copper that contain traces of gold and silver. The ingots were 3 feet long, 2 inches thick, and weighed 806 pounds each.

The investigation moved to the port, where customs officers identified three containers scheduled to depart for Hong Kong. Each container held 60 copper ingots, but had a Shipper's Export Declaration listing them as "Metal Scrap (Copper Alloy Waste and Scrap)" from the same exporter, authorities said.

Customs officers found three more containers with similar shipments that were on vessels headed for China. They were ordered to return to the port for inspection.

Agents found 179 copper ingots in the three containers for a total of 145 tons. Each ingot was covered with black powderlike substance to camouflage its color.

"We made this traffic stop with this semi loaded with all these ingots," Graves said. "And our detectives followed the money all the way to California."

No arrests have been made, but investigators are continuing to work the crime, which involved "a lot of players," Graves said.

larry.altman@dailybreeze.com

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