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Bill Gallagher, street maintenance worker with the Concord Public Works Department, finishes installing new cement boxes putting the lockable lid down to enclose the street light wiring off Willow Pass Road in Concord, Calif., on Friday, March 8, 2013. In response to a rash of copper wire theft of about 2,000 feet from the street lighting electrical boxes, the city of Concord is installing new lock boxes as they replace the wiring. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

CONCORD -- Some Bay Area cities would like Daniel Meyers to be the new poster boy for copper thievery. In an era when copper thefts are soaring and thieves loot with near impunity, Meyers' arrest was surprisingly routine.

Police say that on May 21, Meyers cut and took $1,050 worth of copper wire from a rural area near Columbus Parkway in Vallejo, put the stolen goods in a Cadillac Escalade and drove to an apartment.

Thanks to tracking technology, police followed his every move. The 32-year-old was arrested a short time later. He has since pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in April on charges of grand theft and receiving stolen property.

Mike Murphy, street light technician with the Concord Public Works Department, splices copper wire that was cut into newly installed wire off Willow Pass
Mike Murphy, street light technician with the Concord Public Works Department, splices copper wire that was cut into newly installed wire off Willow Pass Road in Concord, Calif., on Friday, March 8, 2013. In response to a rash of copper wire theft of about 2,000 feet from the street lighting electrical boxes, the city of Concord is installing new lock boxes as they replace the wiring. (Laura A. Oda/Staff) ( Laura A. Oda )

This electronic tracking technology is what Vallejo officials hope will put an end to the copper theft bonanza. Other cities also are eyeing the prospective solution to what has, in recent years, become a scourge that affects traffic lights, park lighting, building wiring and other public and private facilities that run on electricity.

Once a major component in making 1-cent coins, copper now is costing cities a pretty penny to replace. Thefts have soared along with the price of copper: The metal now goes for $4 a pound at salvage yards, nearly three times the price four years ago. But it's costing cities much more to replace.


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A 2012 report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau shows that since August 2009, metal thefts -- especially of copper -- have steadily increased across the nation, driven by rising prices for base metals.

The repair costs have hit taxpayers throughout the Bay Area. In San Jose: $160,000 to repair 500 lights. In Fremont: nearly $500,000 to replace copper wiring stolen from streetlights during late 2011 and early 2012. For BART: almost $100,000 in 2011 to replace copper wiring along its tracks. And on Bay Area highways from the South Bay to Concord, 59 metering lights have been vandalized over the past year; Caltrans has replaced 18 at a cost of $35,000 apiece.

"There's no city that's immune to copper theft," said Mike Schreiner, assistant maintenance superintendent for Vallejo. "It's going to happen in Danville, and it's going to happen in Oakland. Copper is copper."

Concord has spent more than $1 million since 2007 repairing and replacing copper wiring. Thieves have hit Concord City Hall, several city parks, and lighting and signals along Port Chicago Highway and Highway 242. Even Camp Concord, a city-operated camp in the Lake Tahoe area, has been plundered.

Authorities in Concord have worked with recycling centers to deter thefts, but a major obstacle remains: Even if copper wire is determined to be stolen, it is difficult to link that wire to a specific location, said Sgt. Jeff Krieger of the major crime unit.

"In a nutshell, it's very hard to prosecute," said Concord police Lt. David Hughes.

A solution may be found in Vallejo, which two years ago invested in technology to curb its surging copper thefts.

City officials were hesitant to discuss the specific anti-theft technology they bought, lest aspiring thieves learn too much about it.

But Eric Hutchinson, CEO of Michigan-based The Copper Stopper, described some options that are on the market. One is to insert a microscopic tag in the wire that is invisible to the naked eye but can be identified by authorities. This is particularly useful at recycling centers, where thieves often bring stolen copper wiring.

Another method is to embed a tracking device on the wire. The company is alerted when the device is on the move and can follow its path, Hutchinson said.

"Even the slightest little movement will set off an alarm," said Concord Public Works Director Justin Ezell, whose city is considering similar technology.

San Jose has a homegrown form of defense: a new LED lighting system, which connects to a central management center. It allows the city to be notified almost immediately after a streetlight burns out, or when copper wiring is cut, said Hans Larsen, director of San Jose's department of transportation. Quicker responses could result in more arrests, he said.

In Vallejo, which had spent about $400,000 to replace copper in recent years, copper thefts have plummeted since implementing the new technology, Schreiner said. Vallejo police made their first arrest three hours after installing the trackers, a source familiar with the technology said. Police have since made more than two dozen arrests, including Meyer's.

"We don't have any street wire missing in our city at this time ... the first time in almost two years," Schreiner said.

Momentum against copper thieves may be building, but the anti-theft technology is still new and hasn't been extensively tested in the field.

"The tragic part of it is it's a crime against the whole community. It's coming out of taxpayer dollars," said Greg Patterson, The Copper Stopper's director of business development. "We want to be able to go in and help them solve the problem."

David DeBolt covers Concord and Clayton. Contact him at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.