The lights on Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City are still dark nine months after thieves pulled the biggest copper wire theft in state history.
Likely posing as construction workers or motorists with broken down cars, they ripped the wires from 10th North to 18th North, said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason. UDOT discovered the brazen theft in March but they never budgeted for the $50,000 loss, so that stretch of freeway stays dark until next spring, when the department can take funds out of its maintenance or snow removal budget.
And who is ultimately paying for it? Taxpayers.
Metal theft can cost Utah taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. For every $100 a thief gets for stolen copper, it costs the utility company $5,000 to repair. Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that copper theft costs American consumers billions of dollars each year.
With law enforcement playing catch-up, they brought in an expert to help them. Federal Police Lt. Terrance Alling, a 17-year officer who started Metal Theft Training and Consultants to pass along his experience from his hundreds of metal-theft cases, flew into Salt Lake City on Tuesday to train more than 50 officers, code enforcers, attorneys and crime analysts from all over Utah on the growing issue.
"The biggest problem is that we don't really understand this crime," said Alling, during a lunch break from the daylong training at Salt Lake City's Public Safety Building. He brought an assortment of copper with him burned and stripped wires to show officers what the materials look like after thieves get to them. Burned copper is an instant red flag.
He also showed them how thieves carry magnets to test if something is truly copper or just colored that way, and explained how thieves get around laws concerning recyclers.
The idea is that the trainees will take this information back to their departments to better crack down on the growing crime. Now when an officer sees someone with bolt cutters and a magnet, or a coil of burnt copper in someone's backseat, he or she knows to ask the right questions, Alling said.
When the value of copper shot up in 2011, theft became an epidemic. No other metal is stolen as much as copper, Alling said.
Data from UDOT suggests that metal theft costs hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and has been on the rise in recent years. In fiscal 2010, UDOT reported a loss of $350,000. That amount rose to $410,000 in fiscal year 2012, and so far this year, at least $190,000 worth of metal has been stolen.
"It costs us all in the end," Gleason said. From February 2011 to February 2013, UDOT crews replaced 110,000 feet of copper wire in Tooele, Salt Lake and Summit counties alone.
Almost 90 percent of metal thieves are drug addicts looking for quick money to feed their habit, Alling said. And as opposed to other crimes, thieves who are caught stealing metal are usually charged with petty larceny and spend a few days in jail at the most, said Salt Lake City Police Detective Robert Ungricht earlier this year.
But the damage they do goes beyond the financial. They are damaging critical infrastructure, Alling said. The heist endangers the thieves, too they could be electrocuted if the crime goes awry, he said.
Chasing them proves difficult. As far as Gleason knows, no one was ever arrested for the historic I-15 heist. This past legislative session, Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, successfully passed his bill to increase penalties for metal dealers and require metal dealers to get a photo identification and signature from repeat sellers at every transaction, in the hopes of cracking down on metal theft.
But the thieves, a step ahead, use someone else's identification and will sell to 10 different recyclers to stay under the radar, Alling said.
Salt Lake City Detective Mike Millard, a metal-theft investigator, wants to change that. He wants to get legislators on board for a bill that would require metal recyclers to get on the same system as pawn shops one that tracks sellers no matter where they go in the state, making suspicious sellers easier to spot.
A relationship with the recyclers is essential to fighting back, Alling said. Part of his daylong training session was focused on building those bridges.
Another big deterrent, one that seems to have proven its worth, is vigilance.
Since that giant I-15 heist, Gleason said UDOT has not had any more reports of copper wire thefts. It was widely covered in the local media and the Utah Highway Patrol stepped up its patrols. Since then, UDOT has been getting calls from the public wanting to make sure contractors are really contractors. Troopers have stopped official workers to make sure of the same.
"We owe a big debt of gratitude to the public and to law enforcement," Gleason said. "… The added eyes on these types of situations, that's what's going to make these criminals think twice about doing something like this. If we can create the awareness and promote that awareness, that will help in the end."
For its part, UDOT even started replacing copper wires from older thefts with aluminum, which works about as well and is less valuable. Crews also have been moving junction boxes away from light posts and burying them, filling some boxes with concrete and adding rebar to others to make it harder to chip the concrete away.