Rise in Metal Prices Leads to Odd Crime Wave

The rising price of metal has spawned an unusual crime wave — aluminum bleachers are missing in one Ohio town, and an historic bronze plaque, pried from a Pennsylvania monument, may already have been melted down and sold. Brad Linder from member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports.

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Around the country, thieves have been setting their sights on anything metal because scrap metal prices are at an all-time high. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Brad Linder reports the thefts have been costly and in some cases dangerous.

BRAD LINDER reporting:

William Penn landed in what's now Chester, Pennsylvania, almost 325 years ago to found the colony of Pennsylvania. On the spot where he landed is a granite and marble monument, and up until a few weeks ago, there was bronze plaque showing what the area looked like in 1682.

Ms. CAROL FIRENG (Vice Chair, Chester Historical Preservation Committee): There was a Steamboat Inn that was later down on the water. There was the Boar's Head out this way to my left as we look out from the Penn Park, away from the river, and then over here...

LINDER: Carol Fireng is vice chair of the Chester Historical Preservation Committee. She says a lot's changed in the last three centuries. Train tracks and a large industrial plant now line the landscape. Fireng says the plaque gave tourists a sense of what Chester used to look like. In early June, the four-foot by 18-inch bronze plaque was reported missing. Fireng says her first thought was not that the plaque had fallen off the brick wall where it was installed, but that it had been stolen by someone looking for some quick cash.

Ms. FIRENG: Because we have a little problem with drugs here, and so therefore, having seen what's happened to some of our other buildings, where they cut all the copper tubing and all of that, and anything that's metal just goes somewhere, we assume that that's what had happened.

LINDER: This isn't an isolated incident. Thieves across the country have stolen everything from manhole covers to aluminum bleachers from sporting venues. In the Ukraine, thieves disassembled and stole a small steel bridge. For years, thieves have been known to go after metal objects that could be melted for scrap.

Chuck Carr is vice president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group representing 1,300 scrap metal dealers in the U.S. Global demand for metal is on the rise, and Carr says aluminum prices are near a 20-year high, and copper recently hit an all-time high.

Mr. CHUCK CARR (Vice President, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries): Thieves, regardless of what they're stealing, generally look for targets of opportunity, and certainly when prices get where they are today, we're seeing more theft than we've seen, say, a year or two ago.

LINDER: Carr says most scrap metal dealers will be suspicious if someone brings them something like railroad spikes or manhole covers. But he says it's not always easy to tell the good scrap from the bad.

Mr. CARR: Whenever we know of stolen material and can be on the lookout for it, particularly if it has identifying marks, we can help police find that material and recover it and hopefully catch the thief as well.

LINDER: When the William Penn plaque was reported stolen, Carr says his group sent out an alert to every scrap yard in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. So far, no one's come forward with any information. That leaves Carol Fireng, with the Chester Historical Preservation Committee, wondering what the city will do to celebrate the 325th anniversary of Penn's landing next year. Thieves may have been able to get a few hundred dollars for the plaque, but she says replacing it could cost quite a bit more than that.

Ms. FIRENG: Absolutely. I mean, to sculpt something of that size is going to be appreciable. And then to have it cast and then to have it mounted, it's going to be millions times more, you know, contrasted to the value of the metal that he's getting for the scrap.

LINDER: The cost and the impact can be even higher when thieves steal metal like iron spikes from railroad tracks or copper wire from buildings. If Reading Pennsylvania fire chief William Rehr says one suspected metal thief lost his life last month trying to strip copper wire from a utility pole.

Mr. WILLIAM REHR (Fire Chief, Reading Pennsylvania): And he climbed the pole using a screwdriver to grip the pole and holding on to a metal conduit that ran down the pole. And when he got to the top he grabbed the metal railing of the platform and as he hoisted himself up the side of his head touched one of the three phases of the line which they tell me carries - the one wire carries a voltage of about 7,620 volts.

LINDER: The man was electrocuted and fell off the 50-foot utility pole. Rehr says police suspect the homeless man was addicted to drugs and looking for a quick way to get money. In May over 10 historic buildings in New York City were destroyed when thieves allegedly started a fire in one abandoned structure to burn the insulation off of stolen copper wire. And in Chester Pennsylvania all that's left where the bronze plaque stood is a 130-year-old stone monument. Carol Fireng says it'll probably stay safe unless granite and marble prices rise. For NPR News, I'm Brad Linder in Philadelphia.

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