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Mar 16,2011

Mar 15, 2011 (Newton Daily News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Dan Cupples, owner of Car Country Auto Wrecking at 2713 Highway 14 S. in Newton, walks through the salvage yard behind his main office. Wearing blue jeans and flannel, carrying a walkie-talkie he peers into a yellow steel bin. Copper wiring and conduit coated with a black rubbery plastic snake out the top.

"This is the kind of stuff they're after," said Cupples referring to recent thefts of scrap metal in Jasper County. "Now this whole bin is worth about $1,500, and that's dirty. So you can see why they'd want it."

A recent string of raw material thefts in Jasper County, occurring at the vacant Jasper County Care Facility on Jan. 26 and most recently at the Tri-State wireless communication tower construction site in Laurel on March 3, has resulted in over $100,000 in various metals being stripped from unattended industrial sites.

He continues through the labyrinth of auto, appliance and pipe scrap pointing out different types of salvage.

"This is Romex," he says. He pulls a long strain of wiring out of the bin, showing one of the more readily accessible materials to thieves.

Yelling over the diesel powered hum of a clawed wrecker, Cupples explains why people would want to take the risk in stealing scrap materials and how criminals have been able to cover their tracks, selling copper wiring to every day salvage retailers.

An individual can get $4.50 per pound for copper conduit, piping or wire. There are two specific grades a salvage retailer looks for when pricing a sale. If the plastic coating was stripped, this "clean copper" can bring up to the full market value. But this takes time and labor to achieve, so much of what is being sold from thefts is a lower grade salvage. Cupples and Jasper County Sheriff Mike Balmer said that to save time, criminals will melt or burn the coating from the wiring. This can diminish the salvage rate by $1-$3 per pound. Copper and aluminum coil and pipes stripped from such equipment as heavy duty air conditioning units, although not as pure, can still fetch $1.70 per pound.

Balmer said that his department seldomly gets phone calls from salvage companies suspecting potentiality stolen copper or heavy metals

"I'm not going to criticize what they do," he said. "But there has to be some guy buying loads of copper in Iowa."

He said after calls of inquiry salvage owners will start to see suspects in certain batches of heavy metals redeemed.

But there is difficulty in verifying the origins of salvaged materials. According to Cupples, the plastic coating encasing most copper wiring is a fingerprint. It can roughly tell point of sale and in what type of facility, residential or industrial, the material was used. This can also make it difficult for law enforcement to track the stolen material as its sold.

"We just had a guy call here a couple of days ago saying he had 400 pounds of clean copper," said Cupples. "We started asking him a lot of questions about the material, and we never heard back from him. It was probably stolen."

He said it's unusual for someone who is not with a construction or with an electrical company to have that amount of clean copper legitimately.

However, these types of thefts are not a new trend, but according to Balmer, they tend to rise and recede.

"It kind of goes in waves," he said.

Balmer believes the fragile economy has a lot to do with the recent uptick in construction-grade metal thefts.

Raw material thefts have been put back in the county spotlight again after suspect Ryan Claiborne, 32, of Des Moines allegedly broke into the Jasper County Care Facility and removed over $100,000 worth of copper and other raw materials. There are several warrants out for his arrest from both Jasper and Polk Counties, but he is still at large as of Tuesday morning.

"No one's seen hide or hair of him," said Balmer. "If he keeps his headlights working and his tail lights going, he could stay hidden where he is. But it's just a matter of time."

The theft in Laurel resulted in the theft of 200 feet of wiring totaling $5,000 dollars. This case is still under investigation and there are no suspects in the case.

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