Metal recycling — and scrap metal theft — is on the rise. And it's not just environmental altruism.
Don't get Ota Dossett started on the subject of metal thieves unless you have a while to listen.
"You dirty birds. You are stealing from the babies of Urbana. It's against every grain of my being," said the veteran director of facilities for the Urbana School District.
Instead of having a not-so-rushed summer getting the new Urbana Early Childhood School at 2202 E. Washington St., U, spit-polished for the incoming preschoolers, Dossett and crew will have to step up the pace a bit to be ready for school in August.
That's because the theft of thousands of dollars worth of copper and brass from the construction site last fall delayed by about five weeks the completion of the building, now set to be in district hands June 17.
"The items they stole were the control valves for the geothermal system, which are custom ordered," Dossett said. "They don't make them until you place the order. The same site was hit two times. The first time they took pipe already installed at ceiling level, and the second time they took the brass valves.
"The value of the copper was maybe $17,000 or $18,000. Unfortunately, the delay cost $75,000."
The taxpayers of District 116 will eat the costs attributable to the delay. Insurance carriers for the district and the contractors declined to cover those expenses.
"It's money that could have been spent on the playground. You're stealing toys from babies," Dossett said.
A frequent crime
Ken Mathis, co-owner of Mack's Twin City Recycling at 2808 N. Lincoln Ave., U, knows why metal recycling — and scrap metal theft — is on the rise. And it's not just environmental altruism.
"When I first bought this place (20 years ago), copper was worth 85 to 90 cents a pound. At its peak (around 2009), we were paying $3.50 a pound. Today it's $2.70 a pound," he said.
One of his regular customers, now in prison for stealing metal from a vacant building, netted more than $67,000 from Mack's for recyclables he brought in during 2012.
According to the website for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the value of the nonferrous metal scrap industry approached $50 billion in 2012.
Nonferrous metals include aluminum, copper, lead, nickel, tin and zinc — metals that do not degrade in the recycling process, making them valuable because of the amount of times they can be recycled. While nonferrous scrap is a small percentage of the total materials recycled in the U.S., it accounts for more than half of the total U.S. scrap recycling industry earnings.
China is the leading buyer of exported U.S. recyclables. It bought $9.5 billion worth in 2012, the site said.
It's difficult to quantify the rise in the theft of metal locally in the last few years because police lump metal thefts in with other kinds of theft or burglaries to tally crime statistics. But police can attest it has been on the rise since about 2006. Almost weekly, police reports contain some reference to an air conditioner being hit for its condenser coil or a vacant home being stripped of plumbing.
Douglas County State's Attorney Kevin Nolan estimates that for the past four to five years, the majority of the theft cases he's prosecuted involve recyclable metal.
"It's been farmers (who are victims). There's an Arthur business that got hit. Anybody who has scrap metal lying around. Old houses in the country are getting raided. Sometimes all the copper wire will be skinned out of them," he said.
While Mathis is in business to make a profit, he's also willing to work with police when he thinks a transaction is fishy — a decision that usually ends up taking cash out of his pocket.
Recently, he saw a newspaper article about the theft of a manure spreader and some other items containing metal from a barn burglary in Mahomet.
"I recognized some of the material that had been stolen," said Mathis, who bought it from two men who had been in three or four times.
He called Champaign County sheriff's investigators with the sellers' names. Detectives contacted the scrappers, and they admitted they had stolen the items to recycle for cash.
That tip to police cost Mathis about $2,000, he said.
Complicated cases to investigate
That case was a relatively easy one to solve. Not all of them are.
"They are such hard cases to solve because there is very little uniqueness about most scrap," Champaign County sheriff's investigator Jody Ferry said. "Unless you find something that is unique, it's almost impossible to solve."
The sheriff's office tends to get more reports of items stolen from barnyards or sheds on rural properties.
"You get these guys driving around the country. They see a property that looks abandoned, farm implements that are rusty. People assume they can clean it up for them. They're taking property that doesn't belong to them," Ferry said.
In town, Champaign police Sgt. Dave Griffet said air conditioners placed in out-of-sight, yet unsecured, locations on a commercial property are easy targets. In summer 2010, three churches in north Champaign and Urbana had their air-conditioning units gutted. At one of those churches, thieves stripped the same unit a second time days after the repairs were completed.
In January, three air-conditioning units on the roof of Laborer's Local 703, 108 E. Anthony Drive, U, were stripped for their copper coils and tubing.
"They are attractive because they have the most value and are easy to take," Mathis said of air-conditioning parts.
Vacant buildings are also a boon to scrappers because they can do the noisy work of sawing copper piping undetected.
When Rantoul police responded to a suspicious-person call on the former Chanute Air Force Base last August, they found Verles Bolton, 46; his girlfriend, Krystal Malone, 27; and her nephew, Deonta Rozier, 17, all of Champaign, near a vacant building at 11 p.m.
Bolton, who was covered with dust, claimed they were out "jogging and doing jumping jacks," but the number of tools, the amount of pipe insulation, and the huge stack of freshly cut copper piping nearby suggested otherwise.
Rozier later confirmed police suspicions that the trio had been in the building for quite a while — about 90 minutes — to have amassed the inventory they intended to haul out.
All were charged with burglary for entering the building intending to steal metal. Bolton ended up pleading guilty to another burglary in which he admitted taking copper out of a vacant building on West Anthony Drive in Champaign that O'Brien Motors used for storage. The amount of damage done in that August 2011 break-in suggested the scrapper or scrappers were at work for hours.
Complicating metal theft investigations, Griffet said, is that a person who legally recycles might have obtained the metal from someone who stole it, making it harder to track the real culprit.
Griffet and Ferry said recycling businesses are helpful. State law requires metal recyclers to get identification from recyclers, videotape transactions and keep comprehensive records. Mathis said he computerized his operation around 2008 because of the increase in volume, making production of records for police easy.
"It's common for thieves to go to multiple recyclers in hopes of avoiding detection," said Ferry. "There's so many of them anymore. They can go to just about any community and sell their scrap."
Mathis said he and his competitors often confer with each other. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has a theft alert on its website for members to notify each other of big thefts.
And recycling businesses are often targets.
Mack's, which is north of Interstate 74, was hit four times between September and December last year. No one was arrested, but the entry to the 30-acre site and theft of copper had a lot in common with a burglary at Bryant Industries, another recycler on U.S. 36 on the west side of Tuscola.
Two Pekin men were arrested and convicted for the Bryant burglary. Douglas Dunn, 39, has a long criminal record and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence; Eric Wisher, 36, had no prior felony convictions and is serving 120 days in the Douglas County Jail and two years of probation.
Nolan said police in Peoria County helped Douglas County police with that Dec. 11-12 burglary.
Peoria County police had put a GPS on a truck of suspected scrap thieves, which they tracked down Interstate 57. They noted the truck sat on U.S. 36 on the west side of Tuscola a long time before going north on I-57 and relayed that information to Douglas County police.
Douglas County police then figured out that the thieves stole copper from Bryant's in a Bryant truck, drove it out of the yard to where their own truck was, transferred it and drove off. The pair was stopped in Pekin, and the less-seasoned of the two criminals "fessed up right away," Nolan said.
Mathis said the thieves at his place used his forklift to move large loads of copper into one of his trucks, which was then driven off the Mack's Twin City Recycling property. The thieves transferred the load to their own vehicle and took off.
"Each time they broke in, we added a little more security," he said.
Crime can pay
Mathis said when he pays money for items that police later discover were stolen and those things get seized as evidence, he's out what he paid the thieves.
"I don't have insurance for that," he said. "That's a risk I take. That's why we work so hard not to buy stolen material. Ultimately, it costs me."
Still, his business paid out a chunk of change last year to Bolton, the scrapper found on the former air base.
Police reports obtained by The News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act show that Bolton was criminally charged in four separate cases between August 2011 and November 2012. In three, large amounts of copper were stolen from vacant buildings. In the fourth, he was accused of stealing the copper and brass from the Urbana school under construction on Washington Street.
Five others were charged in some of those crimes. The cases of two are unresolved; three, including Malone and Rozier, who were in the building in Rantoul with Bolton, got probation.
Bolton is the only one to have been sentenced to prison: 3-1/2 years for burglary for taking metal from the building on Anthony Drive.
In January, while Bolton was out on bond, Champaign firefighters were sent to his home at 511 W. Beardsley Ave., C, for a burning complaint. A fire lieutenant noted the burn barrel in Bolton's yard contained pipe insulation that was being burned off copper tubing. A police officer who also responded saw in Bolton's detached garage several pieces of copper piping and cutting tools.
Based on what they saw that day, investigators' knowledge of Bolton's prior involvement in metal scrapping, and that there had been a spate of copper thefts from six businesses and churches in Champaign and Urbana between Jan. 11 and 15, detectives sought a search warrant for Bolton's home.
In support of their request, they told the judge that Bolton, who is listed in police reports as self-employed, had made $67,717.01 by recycling metal at Mack's during 2012.
Among the items police recovered were Bolton's Link card, multiple saws and blades, tools, air-conditioning housing units, boxes containing pieces of copper piping, knee pads, head lamps, a hacksaw, documents from area recycling businesses and a copper heater coil from a LEX bus.