June 20, 2008

Rising Prices of Scrap Metal Prompt Thieves to Target Businesses, Vacant Homes

By Ron Ingram, Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill.

Jun. 20--DECATUR -- Robert "Buster" Powell is mad and exasperated.

Thieves seeking to capitalize on the sharp run-up in scrap metal prices worldwide are cutting into the profits of Powell's Aaction Equipment, a firm that buys defunct restaurants, refurbishes the equipment and resells it.

This month, thieves broke into locked semirucks that Powell uses as storage units and removed stainless steel kitchen equipment.

"They cleaned me out," Powell said, noting a locked gate did not deter the thieves. "There was $10,000 to $12,000 worth of metal in just one trailer."

A neighboring property owner observed two men laboring Sunday morning to strip the galvanized metal off panels used to create walk-in coolers, Powell said.

"He called the police, but they couldn't catch them," Powell said Tuesday as he stood near the remains of some of the destroyed cooler panels. "They load the stuff on a pickup truck and haul it out of here."

Police Sgt. Steve Chabak said Tuesday, "We do have some leads, some suspects. Mr. Powell is upset because he's been hit several times, but he's not alone."

A 20-ton air conditioning unit recently was lowered from the roof of a former K's Merchandise building in the 1800 block of East Pershing Road and left next to the building in preparation for removal, Chabak said. On Friday, the owner reported that half the interior of the unit had been removed, he said.

"Whoever it was removed the side panels, cut out the piping and rehung the side panels so you couldn't tell they had been there without looking real close," Chabak said. "On Saturday, we got a report that the thieves had returned Friday night and took the rest of the interior. We estimated they got more than 300 pounds of copper and brass."

Chabak said current per pound prices for scrap include copper, $2.40; red brass, $1.75; and a cut-up aluminum radiator, $1.48.

Decatur's largest scrap dealer, Sol Tick, is cooperating with the investigation into the thefts, Chabak said.

Vacant houses also are a target of the thieves, Chabak said.

Powell agreed. He said he owns a house on East Main Street that was vacant. When he recently went to do some work on it, he found all the copper wiring had been cut from the residence.

"It's junk now," Powell said of the house. "It would cost too much to replace all that wiring."

Powell said his business is not the only one hurt by the thefts. He repairs refrigeration units and has been called twice recently to a local liquor store where thieves removed a 10-foot section of copper pipe that operated the refrigeration units from the outside of the building.

"They cut it off so short you can't (weld) a new pipe to the stub," Powell said. "It cost $3,000 to make the repair, and they (the thieves) only got $25 for the copper. It's ridiculous."

Ron Ingram can be reached at [email protected] or 421-7973.


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