Concord spent $250,000 last year wiring street lights in Crystyl Ranch subdivision, on Port Chicago Highway and Commercial Avenue. This wasn't part of a maintenance operation. It was to replace copper wiring that had been stolen. Public Works Director Justin Ezell says the city's tab for such repairs has grown to $1 million over the last six years, thanks to a crime spree that has been difficult to stop and harder to rationalize.
"You don't get a whole lot of money out of this wire," Ezell said, "and so much work goes into stealing it that the thieves could spend their time better getting a job and collecting a paycheck."
He traces the uptick in thefts to an increase in copper prices six years ago. (Ezell places the current price at $4 a pound.) That's when copper wire and pipes began appearing in recycling centers with greater frequency.
"It's become a widespread problem," police Chief Guy Swanger said. "I have friends in Louisiana who said they're getting hammered. I think it's all across the country."
In a typical case, sites are cased during the day, electrical boxes are opened at the base of light poles at night, the wire is snipped, reeled in and stripped of insulation to maximize value to recyclers who pay the best price. It's a strangely orderly and completely illegal business.
Swanger said sellers have come to Concord recyclers from as far away as the Peninsula. Ezell knows of a Santa Rosa group that drove to Richmond to sell. Arrests are rare because all copper looks pretty much the same, and even those found in possession of stolen goods can claim to have found them.
Authorities have employed a variety of measures to stem thefts. They placed large ornamental boulders atop electrical boxes in Newhall Park, only to have crooks move the boulders with cables. They bolted and welded electrical face plates, only to find them opened with grinders and chisels. They've asked residents to phone in suspicious-looking activity (925-671-3333), but tips have been rare.
"We even had a brass plaque stolen from a Veterans Memorial in Newhall Park," Ezell said. "You know a lot of time and effort had to go into removing that."
Ezell, who was hired seven months ago, didn't know his job description would include being a copper cop, but he's embraced the challenge by joining Concord police to form a "copper wire task force."
After talking to officials in neighboring towns who have experienced similar problems, the Concord public works director decided technology might be his ally. All of the city's new copper purchases are now identified with serial numbers that are invisible to the human eye.
Thieves come in all descriptions — "Transients, methamphetamine users, you name it," Swanger said — but he thinks he knows some of those involved and where they make their sales. The serial numbers should aid in making arrests.
One of the cruelest twists in this cat-and-mouse game came when thieves tore the copper piping out of a new bathhouse at the city's Camp Concord youth facility at South Lake Tahoe. When repairs were made, Ezell said, PVC piping was used in place of copper.
"This has opened my eyes to how you construct things," Ezell said, "thinking what is of value to thieves when we build things and how not to make it accessible."
One thing he knows is if you build it, they will come.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org