Illegal Scrapping Claims Many Victims
By Rick Hiduk
South Bend, IN; Long Island, NY; Honolulu, HI; London, England, and Bradford County, PA may not appear to have a lot in common, but a Google search on illegal metal scrapping indicates an alarming increase in the crime, which seems to be universal. Not a week goes by that the Rocket-Courier doesn’t receive at least one report of steel, cast iron, or copper stolen for the purpose of redeeming the items for cash at an local salvage yard. Unfortunately, the victims are not only the homeowner or business from which the materials are stolen, but the owners of the reclamation centers who unknowingly receive the contraband.
“We don’t buy stolen property on purpose,” said Towanda Iron and Metal president Brad Aronson. “We become the victims unintentionally.”
“It makes us look bad, and our reputation is important to us,” added D.C. Warehousing and Recycling owner Dennis Cote. “We want to trust the people we’re working with, but (illegal scrapping) can happen. If something looks old and rusty, we have no clue that it may be stolen.”
Such is fact in an area where old farm equipment and items stored for years in sheds and barns are abundant. Cote considers it a win-win situation when someone decides to clean up an area that has looked like a junkyard for years and brings the materials to him for reclamation. The homeowner makes a little money, and the salvage yard realizes a profit when the materials are sorted, cut up, and sold again.
While prices for metals fluctuate but remain high, those who make a habit of illegal scrapping may collect and store items for months before selectively redeeming them at numerous centers in Bradford County and lower New York state.
“They run around and do this for up to six months, then turn it all in. Some of them make a pretty good chunk of change at it,” said Pennsylvania state police Cpl. Al Ogden of the Towanda barracks. During the winter months, he noted, “career” thieves enter seasonal homes and remove copper plumping, wiring, and other fixtures. The crimes are generally not reported until the owner returns in the spring or summer, by which time the burglar has already spent the cash he made on the materials.
“There’s a lot of people who steal scrap and regard it the same as cans they would pick up along the highway,” lamented Bradford County District attorney Daniel Barrett.
“There’s easy access to scrap metal,” state trooper Miranda Musick concurred She has helped to investigate several recent cases and is among many in law enforcement to have noticed a surge in such incidents in recent months.
Ogden has heard of corn planters, lawn mowers, and engine blocks being stolen and turned into salvage yards. In Troy, he noted, lightning rods were recently removed from utility poles.
And, it’s not just an abundance of obsolete farm equipment and infrastructure that is driving the market. Bradford County’s current industrial and construction boom is also a catalyst in illegal scrapping. One of the most publicized cases recently involved the removal of approximately 4,000 feet of coiled electrical wiring from the Best Western Hotel construction site in North Towanda Township between May 14 and 19. Joshua Vanderpool of Rome was charged for the crime. A friend who had worked at the site had told him that the wiring was not well guarded, so Vanderpool allegedly stole the materials and later bragged to his friend about the $300 he received for it from Weitsman’s Scrap Yard in Owego, NY. Lehigh Railroad LLC has been the victim of several attempted robberies in the past month, and other construction sites have increased security measures to protect new and old metal items on their respective sites.
While it is generally easier to recognize unused materials from truly recyclable metal items, the criminals succeed with a variety of redemption strategies, including splitting up what they have collected and taking it to a variety of salvage yards so that it is more difficult to tie to a singular report of theft.
“You don’t steal things and turn them in in your own backyard,” Cote remarked.
By spreading the materials out and reducing it into smaller amounts, even new material can be passed on as something left over from a project. Nonetheless, operators of reclamation centers have stepped up their vigilance and have learned from previous, costly mistakes.
“We know that certain materials come from certain plants,” Aronson said of one of several new courses of action implemented by his company in recent years. If items brought to him would only be used by DuPont, he cited as an example, he would call the company to discuss it.
Cote recalled an example of a man who brought a number of copper fittings to him in a McDonald’ bag. One of them still had an Ace Hardware sticker on it, so he correctly assumed that the items were stolen.
“Other than that, it’s a gut feeling,” said Aronson. “If it doesn’t feel right, we contact the authorities and report it.”
Both Aronson and Cote related that they have stepped up surveillance at their respective sites but, for obvious reasons, didn’t elaborate on their techniques. Barrett cited the practices employed by Towanda Iron and Metal as being especially proactive and helpful in solving some of the illegal metal scrapping cases and bringing a handful of the thieves to justice.
“They buy a lot of scrap, but they have been very careful,” Barrett stated.
“They provide us with whatever we ask them to provide us,” Ogden said of salvage yard operators in general.
Unfortunately, solving and closing a case does not always bring justice to the salvage yard operators, whom police and the district attorney assert are largely cooperative with such investigations. The problem is that the reclamation center pays the unscrupulous scrapper in good faith and returns the stolen items or materials to the victim whenever original ownership can be determined.
“If it’s evidence, we seize it. They don’t have that material to process and ship out,” said Ogden. “The scrap yard owners could be left holding the bag for a while, but it should come back to them as restitution.”
Cote and Aronson, who value their relationship with law enforcement as the surest way to stem the tide of illegal scrapping, also subscribe to the theory of restitution but agree that it rarely works out that way.
“We work with them, but we usually get no recourse,” said Cote. If the stolen material has already been processed, he continued, the company generally pays the victim the same amount that was paid to the thief, “but then we’re out.”
“I already paid for it. The thief got the money. I’m out the money and the material,” Aronson agreed. “I’m never going to get the money back.”
“Our only recourse is to apply for restitution, but that can take a lifetime,” added D.C. Warehouse general manager Lyle Harkness.
While incidents of illegal metal scrapping continue to rise, Aronson expressed his relief that his company has not accepted a large amount of illegal materials. “We’ve been very fortunate,” he remarked in light of what some of his competitors have experienced.
“We’re very grateful of where we are. In the past five years, we have developed a great clientele. We’re lucky to be able to pick and choose our customers,” added Cote, who acknowledged that he has turned away people whom he didn’t trust.
Harkness expressed some hope that the number of burglaries at construction sites may decrease in coming years as more plastic parts are used instead of metal. “You’ll never get away from copper wiring,” he suggested, but most contractors are using plumbing parts made of polyvinylchloride (PVC).