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Copper and robbers in Terre Haute, Ind.

Many people sell metal for extra cash — but some break the law while they scrap to survive

By Lisa Trigg

June 26, 2011

TERRE HAUTE — A scruffy man appeared before a judge in Vigo Superior Court recently, facing an allegation of theft for taking metal from a vacant home.

"It's how I feed my family," the man said of scrapping, the practice of selling discarded metal such as copper and aluminum to a local recycling company.

"If I don't go home today, my family won't eat," he told the judge.

The man had been arrested by Terre Haute Police while allegedly stripping metal from an unoccupied home that he did not own, and it wasn't his first arrest at that location, so he knew it was a crime.

City Police Detective Troy Davis understands the desperation that causes some people to turn to crime.

"Times are tough," he said, noting that some scrappers are just trying to earn cash to survive.

Detective Julia Dierdorf said illegal scrapping is an ongoing problem throughout the city, and has been for years. It goes hand in hand with the local drug problem, she said, explaining that a person can usually scrap enough metal in one day to buy that day's illicit drug supply.

Money for metal

Tom Haley at Goodman and Wolfe, a salvage yard in Terre Haute, said an average of 200 people per day come to the business to sell their junk items. Among the people who have found financial benefit in selling metals are soccer moms, doctors, business people and farmers along with not-for-profit groups and others who rely on money-for-metal as income.

Some people advertise that they will remove junk from property, and a lot of times, those folks will then sell any valuable metal that they pick up. Other people routinely pick up discarded cans and metal in public places such as alleys or along streets, or get permission from a property owner to cart off salvageable debris, Haley said, then take that to a recycling facility to trade for cash.

Haley said a person who brings in a large trash bag of crushed drink cans to Goodman and Wolfe can probably receive about $9 for the bag, which can make the effort worth it. He said he knows of several people who have specific routes that they cover daily to pick up discarded cans and metal that can be resold.

The de-cluttering and litter cleanup provide an environmental benefit by keeping metal that can be recycled out of landfills, Haley said. In a way, scrappers can be seen as an "organism" that works through the food chain to clean up the environment.

Some scrappers, though, recognize no boundary on what is free for the taking, especially when it comes to vacant homes.

"I think some people just look at it, and they [see] no one's taking care of it, and they think they can take what they want," Dierdorf said. "I do think at first a lot of people are like 'nobody else wants it' and then they'll take it."

Crime-fighting

Police see a variety of scrapping theft. Sometimes, a thief breaks into a vacant house to take metal such as furnaces, appliances, plumbing and even electrical wiring from the walls. Those arrested for such crimes face felony charges, and if convicted, jail time and a hefty fine await. Related criminal charges and penalties are:

n If a person breaks into a residential dwelling to steal items, the crime is a class-B felony burglary along with class-D felony theft. A person who unlawfully enters a business to scrap has committed a class-C felony burglary.

n A class-B felony is punishable by six to 20 years in prison, and up to a $10,000 fine. A class-C felony carries a potential two to eight years in prison, and the same fine. A class-D felony theft has a sentencing range of six months to three years, and up to a $10,000 fine.

"The people who do it know the value of the metal," Detective Dierdorf said. "Depending on the market, it's pretty valuable," she said of aluminum and copper.

Tracking the source of the metal is the difficult part. It's hard to say where copper wiring comes from, or if the aluminum siding in the back of a pickup truck comes from a remodeling project, Dierdorf said.

Michael Mervis, whose family operates the Goodman and Wolfe salvage business, said company workers have become adept at spotting legitimate scrappers and those who come in with items that they shouldn't have, such as copper wire still on the wooden spool from the contractor.

To help combat the resale of stolen items, the company complies with a local ordinance — enacted by the Terre Haute City Council in February 2010 to discourage illegal sales — that requires recording of the seller's identification. That information must be electronically submitted to city police by pawn shops, secondhand stores and scrap yards.

Mervis said the company kept such seller records long before the city enacted the ordinance.

"If someone comes in with a copper downspout and says they got it from their grandmother's old house that they are tearing down, how are we to know if they're telling the truth," Mervis said. "It may be from a historic church, and we give them $100 for it, but it may cost the church hundreds of dollars to replace."

Big business

The market on scrap metal is cyclical, Mervis said. From 2003 to 2008, the market saw the value of scrap metal rise, because industrial demand overseas increased. It is also less costly to refine or recycle scrap as opposed to mining new metals. With the economic recovery in recent months, the value of metals has been on the increase, he said.

The demand for scrap relates to industrial growth, and Mervis said the demand for scrap has shifted from a domestic to a global marketplace. Many steel mills cannot get enough raw material from industrial sources, so they rely on the scrap industry to supply metal that can be recycled.

Some manufacturers will sell their leftover scrap materials to be recycled as a way to recoup some of their costs, he noted, and even some landfill operators will sell discarded metals in order to preserve valuable landfill capacity.

Eye on security

Goodman and Wolfe has many security measures in place to not only protect the company, but the sellers, as well. Electronic video surveillance around the business, located along 13th Street at College Avenue, tracks who enters the property with what items.

On a recent day, two Terre Haute Police detectives were in the company's office, reviewing video and electronic records as they worked a reported theft case. Detectives Davis and Jeff Trotter said the company has been helpful in allowing a review of records, and on that day, the officers got information they were looking for to help their investigation.

Mervis said the company, which operates facilities in Illinois and Indiana, has rules in place that exceed the requirements of documenting purchases of scrap sales. An electronic checkout system scans the identification of customers while a video camera captures an image of the person. Cash is paid out only to a certain amount. Higher amounts are paid by check, which is another way to track the seller.

The company employees also use common sense when buying scrap items.

"If someone drives up with something in their back seat to sell that seems out of place, or unlikely for them to have legally, that sends up a red flag to us," he said.

"Production grade aluminum should not be in the back seat of someone's car," Mervis said.

Those folks will be turned away, Haley agreed, but it is rare to have someone turn up with obviously stolen items. Maybe once per month, someone with questionable scrap is turned away, he said. In some cases, police are notified of the attempted transaction.

Detective Dierdorf said many of the scrappers who are illegally taking metal from properties have become savvy in their selling, because they know police have the cooperation of the salvage businesses and secondhand stores.

"If someone sells 50 pounds of copper and we take a theft report that matches…," she said, "I think they [thieves] are smart enough not to sell around here."

The local ordinance applies only in the Terre Haute city limits. Scrappers with stolen items are likely to take questionable items to businesses in surrounding communities or counties.

Anything goes

A few years ago as local foreclosures were peaking in the Wabash Valley, vacant houses were being targeted by property thieves who would remove appliances, electrical wiring and other items to sell. While that kind of activity has died down, Dierdorf said, there are still some break-ins of vacant houses and rental properties.

"If someone is trying to flip a home, and no one is living there, then that is a prime target," she said of some properties.

To protect a vacant home, owners should use exterior lighting, keep all doors and windows locked, and make sure the property is visible from the street. Keeping the grass cut so that the property does not look neglected is another way of keeping "scrappers" from descending on the location.

Thieves will take refrigerators and air-conditioning units because they contain a lot of metal parts, Dierdorf said. Units are disassembled to get at the aluminum and copper within.

"They will tear it apart and take the pieces in" to sell, she said.

Victims abound

The property crimes unit of THPD handles these crimes.

Since January, Dierdorf estimates that 20 to 30 cases have been filed with THPD. Most cases do not have suspects, because people owning these homes may not check on them for a week or two, and by the time the owner discovers the thefts, any suspect is long gone. By the time an owner takes inventory of what was taken, and the report is turned over to the property crimes unit, it can take up to a month to get some investigation going, she said.

One commercial property in Terre Haute heavily hit by people scrapping metal sustained an estimated $100,000 damage to the building some time during the winter months. The person managing the property was out of state, so it is unknown when the damage occurred.

That building was owned by the family of Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt, who said the structure near First Street and Margaret Avenue had its furnace, air conditioner and copper wiring stolen.

"It was quite devastating, because it was an older building and it was vacant," Modesitt said. "We were wanting to rent it out again."

Renovations already were planned for the property, he said, but now the expense will be much higher to repair the damage to the walls, which were destroyed when the copper wiring was ripped out.

Modesitt said he thinks the city ordinance to monitor scrap sales is helpful to police investigations of thefts and burglaries. Since people involved in illegal activity also tend to associate with each other, it allows police to see connections between crimes and suspects.

"At least it gives the police some leads on people they can put on the radar," Modesitt said.

But, he noted that he cannot say for certain the new ordinance has resulted in a reduction in crime.

"I think it does help some, but there needs to be more attention to it still," he said.

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