Copper thieves cash in at city’s expense

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118417375128339.jpg’, ”, ‘Doug Mark‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118417371826426.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘City employees’ theft and salvaging copper from the city-owned Barber-Colman property, on Rockford’s near-west side, brought a response from City Legal Director Patrick Hayes, “This practice has come to an end.”‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118417373814744.jpg’, ”, ‘Paul Logli‘);

Acting on tips from readers, The Rock River Times began investigating reports of municipal employees scrapping copper from city-owned sites in Rockford. After several inquiries were made to leaders in the Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) administration and Police Department, Legal Director Patrick Hayes announced July 6 the city had taken corrective action to respond to the incidents.

“This practice has come to an end,” Hayes declared in a statement to the press.

In the weeks prior to the announcement, Hayes and Assistant City Administrator Julia Scott-Valdez confirmed our readers’ tips were founded, but that the matter was being regarded as a personnel issue.

Once the administration learned of the activity, the Human Resource Department reportedly pursued criminal and civil investigations before referring it to the office of the State’s Attorney.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli’s (R) office brought no charges, however, so no arrests were made.

“The matter was referred back to the City of Rockford as a personnel matter,” Logli stated. “We reviewed the investigation, and it was the sole judgment of the State’s Attorney’s Office that the facts would not support a criminal prosecution.”

In the press release, city officials acknowledged former and current employees engaged in the act of stealing copper from city-owned properties and recycling the scrap for profit. The stolen copper in the most recent case is valued at more than $3,000, but the practice is believed to have been going on for years.

In the statement issued July 6, Hayes said, “The city considered the long history of a lack of appropriate management response, lack of supervisory oversight, and the failure to interdict the practice after receiving complaints, as contributing factors to the practice.”

Hayes added the administration has disciplined a number of employees and is reinforcing its policy regarding city property.

Because theft at the hands of municipal employees is considered a personnel matter, it is not known whether employment of the thieves was terminated.

Rockford Deputy Chief of Police Greg Lindmark said arrests had been made in the theft of thousands of dollars in copper wiring from the former Barber-Colman building.

Lindmark confirmed police began investigating in late fall 2006, culminating in arrests during the winter.

“There were several homeless people,” Lindmark reported, “living in the area of the Barber-Colman building that we arrested.”

Thieves entered the Barber-Colman building in a variety of ways, Lindmark said, but that security has since been heightened.

Lindmark indicated a number of other arrests have been made related to thefts of copper wiring from similar abandoned structures, such as the Ingersoll building. In total, Lindmark estimated eight arrests were made.

In addition to felony burglary, Lindmark said theft of copper wiring can carry other charges.

“They can be prosecuted under environmental law,” Lindmark explained. The charge of “unlawful waste management” can be applied to anyone burning insulation from wiring to get to the copper within.

“The part that was alarming to us was,” Lindmark said, “during the course of these thefts, people were actually stealing hot wire.”

Lindmark said the theft of electrically-charged wires could easily have resulted in serious injury or death.

Asked if he had an estimate as to the value of the stolen copper, Lindmark responded, “It’s kind of unclear to us the exact amount of wire that was stolen at this point, but several thousands of dollars.”

The thefts at Barber-Colman are unrelated to incidents involving municipal employees.

The Rockford City Council approved an ordinance in March requiring sellers of scrap copper in Rockford to be registered. Ald. Doug Mark (R-3), who introduced the resolution, said the move was not the result of thefts from municipally-owned sites.

“The reason I brought forth a resolution is because of the theft of copper wiring from commercial, residential air conditioning units, copper gutters,” Mark explained. “I wanted to have a register on a valuable metal like that so we could possibly catch someone trying to turn it in.”

Lindmark noted the copper registry ordinance does seem to be having an effect.

Prior to the ordinance’s passage, the state only required registration for sellers scrapping copper in excess of 50 pounds. Now, anyone scrapping copper in any amount in Rockford must be registered.

from the July 11-17, 2007, issue

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