On Hanover Place NE sits an enormous crater filled with the brick skeleton of the Truxton Circle development, a shiny strip of residences in a neighborhood seesawing between ruin and renovation. By October, the frame will develop into 14 brick town houses, complete with fireplaces, carpeted floors, and off-street parking. But before the last strip of carpet is laid, Truxton Circle will likely turn into a precious metals mine. Copper thieves, swift and rapacious, can quickly turn a dreamy little development into a nightmare.
All over the Washington area, bands of clepto-handymen are ripping off copper pipes, wire, and anything else salvageable from unoccupied and abandoned homes, office buildings, and warehouses. Equipped with heavy tools and pickups, the thieves occupy a shadowy link on the criminal food chain just above car break-in specialists and below shoplifters. Their scam is seamless: They prey on sites that are either desolate or hopping with traffic and strip buildings of yards and yards of copper tubing, leaving behind a useless building and massive replacement costs.
New York Avenue merchant Steve Choi knows the losing end of the scam. A crew of industrious copper thieves preyed on the building at New York and Montana Avenue NE that Choi and a few co-workers were converting into a 40-store shopping mall. The thieves stripped the building of all its accessible copper wires and pipes. Retrofitting the building, Choi says, cost about $100,000.
Choi’s older brother, Phillip, has also lost his shirt to copper thieves. He paid $10,000 to replace the copper power feed that thieves stripped from his Okie Street NE thrift store. And Phillip says he’ll have to shell out $300,000 to replace copper gutted from a Northeast warehouse he intends to buy.
Claude Beheler, deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), says that the theft of copper and other materials has been a problem for the entire 25 years he’s been on the force. And he admits that there hasn’t been a lot of progress in slowing the thieves down.
“The majority of the time, the [copper thefts] that I’ve seen have been your abandoned structures, your structures under construction that aren’t guarded, some of your warehouses that don’t have activities going on during late hours—they’ll hit those places,” Beheler says. “There’s a good potential there for money.”
MPD does not classify burglaries by the goods taken and thus lacks data on the theft of copper and other items from empty buildings. Still, Beheler says the crime is prevalent in every quadrant of the city.
Officer Joseph Morquecho, who patrols Southeast’s 7th District, says that the roughly 50,000 vacant apartment units on his beat make the area particularly vulnerable to copper theft. And Morquecho points out that even though the removal of copper or any other type of fixture from a building is considered a felony in the District, perpetrators are undeterred. In recent years, Morquecho says officers have even arrested people coming out of the old 7th District station house on Mississippi Avenue carrying copper tubing and old doors.
Authorities in the District and the suburbs agree that copper theft is part of a broader pattern of thefts from empty buildings—thefts that may claim appliances, cinder blocks, and wood. “It happens in every jurisdiction in the area,” Morquecho says, “especially on larger tract developments like in Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Fairfax counties.” Sure enough, Fairfax city police Officer John Dever concedes that a housing development across the street from the police station lost hordes of building supplies to thieves. “Unfortunately, to my knowledge we weren’t able to make any apprehensions,” says Dever.
In a noisy, industrial pocket of Southwest sits Super Salvage, a junkyard that marks the end of the line for copper rustlers. Inside the gate, a crane operator is busy plucking metallic debris from the ground and placing it in its proper pile. Spitting distance from the crane is a scale, which determines how much money Super Salvage will pay for a load of junk.
“Someone can make out pretty good with a load of copper,” says Joel Kaplan, vice president of Super Salvage. A rusted-out warehouse on the perimeter of the yard houses Kaplan’s stock of nonferrous metals, mostly copper and brass. Inside, Kaplan runs his hands over a heaping tangle of copper tubing that’s piled in a dumpsterlike metal crate; he figures he paid $300 for what looks like a worthless pile of scrap.
“We pay about five cents a pound for aluminum. Depending on how clean it is, copper can get up to 40 cents or so per pound. That’s why people are stealing it,” says Kaplan.
Salvage operators like Kaplan, who generally sell scrap metals to brokers and mills, are the money men in the copper-theft industry. And distinguishing between legally acquired scrap and hot stuff is little more than a guessing game. Kaplan says that depending on the customer, he often files a police report when he buys copper or brass.
In an office near the yard’s giant scale, Kaplan points to a pile of papers produced by Faxnet, a service that informs the yard of thefts in the area. If Kaplan spots a suspicious shipment, he calls the police and tries to detain the suspects as long as he can.
“That’s just a part of doing our business,” Kaplan says. “We do everything we can to avoid buying stolen metal, and after 55 years in the business it’s pretty easy to spot what’s legit and what isn’t. Sometimes if we find out we’ve got stolen stuff, we’ll end up returning it and eating the cost ourselves. It’s a business expense.”
But unlike an auto junkyard operator, Kaplan is under no legal obligation to ask where his suppliers get their goods. Even if the police prove that his scrap metal is hot, Kaplan is beyond reproach.
Faced with enterprising thieves and threadbare enforcement, developers and building owners have no choice but to fend for themselves. That’s what North Capitol Neighborhood Development Inc. (NCND) did in 1994, after thieves ripped underground copper tubing from one of its sites. But the security guard NCND hired to prevent more heists was mugged on his first night on the job.
NCND is now testing another losing strategy: It has hired a homeless man who, in exchange for shelter in a neighboring house, keeps an eye on the Truxton Circle development after hours. But on a Sunday night in May, someone drove a truck onto the construction site and came away with a pallet of cinder blocks. The guard took down the truck’s tag number but didn’t even bother reporting the incident to the police.
Steve Choi went one step further. After getting ripped off once, Choi began sleeping at his building, the better to ward off would-be copper cleptos. His vigilance paid off one night when he snagged two men slinking down a stairwell, their hands full of copper wire and tubing. Choi took a picture of the men in the act, but the police have yet to track them down.—Brett Anderson