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In Chicago, manhole cover thefts pose danger to cars, pedestrians

By Dave Savini

February 22, 2012

CHICAGO (CBS) – Manhole covers and sewer grates are being stolen in Chicago, and across the suburbs, posing a damage threat to cars and a threat of injury to pedestrians, who could fall inside.

The lids are being stolen by the hundreds and sold for scrap.

CBS 2′s Dave Savini investigates the problem and a weapon some communities are using to catch the thieves.

Recently, five tons of sewer grates, paid for with tax dollars, were stolen from neighborhoods in Will, DuPage, and Kane counties, including Linda Klika's in Joliet. She said she witnessed a van pull up and make off with sewer grates.

"They pulled up over there," said Klika pointing down the street. "Real fast — they took them and then they took off."

It takes 10 seconds to grab a grate, or manhole cover, and get away. In Joliet, scrap metal thieves ripped off so many sewer grates, the city actually ran out of them. Warning cones were placed alongside the open holes, which does not satisfy residents like Justin Hurley.

"Small kid could fall in there easily," said Hurley about the lack of a sewer grate. "That'd be devastating."

It could cost as much as $15,000 to replace recently stolen grates.

"It's pretty sad that somebody would stoop to this and go this low just to try to make a buck," said Hurley.

In Chicago, more than 300 missing covers worth more than $20,000, had to be replaced in the past two years.

Metal recyclers pay about seven dollars a grate or manhole cover. The five-ton load recovered would be worth about a thousand dollars to thieves.

There have been arrests for this crime, but the problem is not going away, in part, because the scrap metal business is booming. At metal recycling facilities, you see shopping carts full of items, truckloads too. Nobody knows where this stuff came from before ending up in the recycle pile.

There is a new push to crackdown on scrappers and recyclers. Aurora Police are taking the lead, especially after having more than a 81 grates stolen recently.

Aurora Police Lt. Pete Inda says these thefts are putting the public in danger, "Cars can hit them. Children can fall into them."

In fact, in one neighborhood, a person who reported a sewer grate missing says he almost fell in it when he was cutting his grass.

Metal recyclers in Aurora have to record what metal is sold to them and who sold it. The information goes into a police database.

"Then we can access all that data and find out where items have been scrapped and junked," says Inda.

It is called LeadsOnline Metal Thefts Investigations System. Only four Illinois police departments use this system: Aurora, Elgin, Melrose Park, Franklin Park, Crystal Lake and Rockford. Joliet Police Chief Michael Trafton, whose department uncovered the five-ton load, wants an ordinance so they also can force recyclers to report.

"There's no reason for us not to have this ordinance in the city and we're going to get it," said Trafton.

"I mean it's sad," said Justin Hurley. "I mean what's next?"

"Next they'll be taking the garage doors off," said Linda Klika

The Leadsonline database is used statewide by police departments in Arkansas, Arizona and Mississippi.

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