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New law clamps down on metal thieves

Metal thieves have stolen several of these heavy storm drain covers from communities along the Arizona Strip. The Legislature has tightened up laws regarding scrap metal dealers as the crime has spread across the state.

Proposal requires scrap dealers to register with DPS

KINGMAN - Storm drain covers. Railroad tracks. Miles of fence posts. Copper used as conduit in foreclosed homes.

If it's metal, thieves will steal it and sell it - and they'll destroy somebody's property to make it happen.

On Thursday the Legislature passed House Bill 2262, which requires scrap metal dealers to register and be certified by the Department of Public Safety.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, the bill awaits Gov. Jan Brewer's signature to become law.

For Mohave County Sheriff's Tom Sheahan, the new law could help law enforcement identify and prosecute a growing number of thieves whose crimes cause significant property damage.

"These guys are serious," Sheahan said. "This is how they make their living. It's become a very serious problem."

In addition to outlining the powers and duties of the Department of Public Safety, the legislation also establishes penalties "to deal with the widespread damage to property and equipment resulting from these criminal activities."

Also, scrap dealers could be suspended from dealing in metal if they fail to comply with already established record-keeping rules. Finally, any dealer convicted of purchasing stolen or otherwise prohibited scrap metal is guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to six months in jail and a fine that could range from $2,500 to $20,000.

"Metal theft is a big issue in Mohave County," said Sheahan. "We've got major theft cases going on right now."

Sheahan said thieves target more than industrial areas.

Homes that have been foreclosed and abandoned are a metal thief's favorite victim. He said thefts often don't get discovered until the bank inspects the property. The delay makes investigating the crimes more difficult than normal, and identifying metals as having been stolen from a specific location presents a substantial legal challenge.

Thieves, he said, will do about $10,000 worth of damage to gut a home of about $500 worth of copper. Aluminum is another popular metal.

"That's another huge problem," said Sheahan. "The damage they do is unbelievable. The stolen property can't be returned to the owner. It's not like they're stealing TVs and stereos."

Thieves stole storm drain covers on the Arizona Strip on both sides of the state's border with Nevada.

"These things are 18 inches by 36 inches and they're very, very heavy," said Sheahan. "Nothing metal is immune from these guys."

The sheriff said thieves have even cut up and stole railroad tracks.

"They were on a track that was rarely used, but come on," he said.

A rancher lost three miles worth of fence posts.

So where does a scrap metal thief go to fence three miles worth of fence posts and other metal items?

"Primarily scrap yards," said Sheahan, cutting right to the chase.

"A lot of it is difficult to prove," he said, quickly pointing out that most of the county's scrap metal dealers are honest.

"I see this (new law) more as a partnership," he said. "Scrap dealers realize now what the rules are and that's going to help us catch these guys."

Scrap dealers rarely have a way to know if an item is stolen, but they certainly know their repeat customers.

"The law was intended to get everybody's attention," he said.

Sheahan said scrap metal dealers are inspected whenever detectives get a new case.

"That means we're there a lot, but we could go several months with no activity and then get a rash of them, three to five in two days," he said.

When a pattern is detected, Sheahan said deputies and detectives in unmarked sedans patrol the area.

"That way we can catch them in the act," he said.

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