Hidden Camera Investigation: Why Copper Theft Laws Aren’t Protecting You, Part 1

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(Memphis) Only on 3, an undercover investigation reveals new problems with a growing crime. 

Laws were put in place several years ago to combat copper theft, but WREG On Your Side Investigators found it's easy to side step the rules.

It's lunchtime for students at Porter Leath American Way Headstart, but the three and four-year-olds are getting more than a meal.

"We're really working to get, to make sure that children get ready for school, ready to learn," says Porter Leath Executive VP for Development Mike Warr.

The children are learning life skills like respect and cooperation. Teachings that were cut days short earlier this year.

"They basically just ripped apart every air conditioner and took the copper," says Warr of thieves who climbed on top of the roof to rip out the copper.

The damage cost nearly $200,000, but Warr says parents and students paid the real price.

"The children were deprived of "A", their education, "B" their food, their parents had to go out and find something, some place for them to stay while they went to work."

"We're seeing daily reports of thefts of AC units, of copper in general," says Sgt. Clay Aitken of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office A.L.E.R.T. Unit.

Police reports reveal how bad the problem is. Churches, homes and non-profits are hit every day. At Leawood Baptist, thieves struck twice in two weeks.

Doubletree Elementary has been hit twice and so has Calvary Chapel.

Sgt. Aitken says everyone is a potential victim. It's a world we dig deeper into with a hidden camera investigation.

Copper pays around $2.50 a pound right now, and law enforcement officers say as its value increases, so do thefts.  

Memphis police worked just over 500 scrap metal theft cases in 2010. By 2011, that figured jumped to 768.  

So far in 2012, there have already been 688 reports.

The morning we're scheduled to interview Sgt. Aitken on copper theft, we meet on the scene of a crime, rather than his office.
"They had to remove bolts, remove these, the sidings, and sit here and cut," says Aitken of the crafty crooks who stole copper from an air conditioner that was bolted to concrete beneath.
Aitken says finding the suspects is part of the problem. For example, out of the nearly 700 scrap metal thefts reported to MPD this year, there have only been 71 arrests.

"The leads, the intelligence, it's hard to tell if the copper is stolen, or if it's non-stolen copper," adds Sgt. Aitken.
That's just one of the problems, because if dealers can't tell the difference, there's no need to alert law enforcement.

A 2008 state law aimed at cracking down on metal thefts requires dealers to register.

You can't get rid of A/C units and coils without a HVAC license.

Sellers have to show identification and leave a thumbprint. Memphis has a city ordinance with even stiffer rules.   

WREG On Your Side Investigators used undercover cameras to see if dealers were in compliance.  We hit up more than a dozen scrap yards across the MidSouth, including Arkansas, where folks say looser laws lead to quicker sales.

At our first location, workers begin unloading the copper, but eventually inform our seller of the rules.

"A lot of people been stealing copper lately, you know, it gives the person, if somebody did get their copper stolen, it gives them five days to try to recover their stolen property," explains a worker about the hold period.

However, it's a different story with every dealer. 

Some told our seller five days, others said 10, one even mentioned three.

While all the dealers said we would need an ID, they didn't ask much about how we got the copper.

At a yard in West Memphis, workers gave our seller a form to fill out, but when he asked about a way around it, they pointed us in the direction of somebody willing to buy the copper off of us.

"Let me look at it again, you know they got cameras in there," says the customer to our seller after they step outside.  He adds, "I'll go ahead and give you a hundred for this."

Just like that, we could have passed off our copper to a middle man. Dealers and police say this is one way thieves get around the law. 

James Anthony of Baskin Auto Truck and Tractor has been in the scrap business for almost 20 years.

"Stricter laws, incarceration, instead of a slap on the hand. Back in the old days, you stole, they cut your hand off," says Anthony of why the crooks should face harsher punishment.

Friday on News Channel 3 at 5, we examine a controversial solution to what some call weak laws and a lack of prosecutions.