Manteca Police Chief Nick Obligacion knows just how brazen copper thieves can get.
A few years back Manteca Police officers were working with Union Pacific targeting motorists who were going around downed crossing arms as a train approached when a copper thief started stripping wire from the downed arms just a dozen feet away from officers.
It wasn’t the first time that officers have caught thieves stripping copper wire from safety devices such as crossing arms. And it wasn’t the last.
The City of Manteca placed its losses from copper theft from municipal facilities at $80,000 in 2013. The thieves were getting so bad that in 2012 stripped copper wire regularly plunged street lights into darkness in neighborhoods throughout Manteca.
At one point in 2008, officials estimated copper theft and resulting damage was in excess of $200,000 a year in Manteca. Over $500,000 worth of damage was done to the former Indy Electronics building on Industrial Park Drive by copper thieves over the course of several years as they ripped apart walls and fake ceilings to get to the copper wire. One thief died trying to enter the building while stealing copper when he fell through the skylight.
Deaths aren’t an uncommon byproduct of copper theft that is estimated by the FBI to cost Americans $1 billion a year.
A copper thief in Stockton was electrocuted while trying to steal wire. Over the years copper thieves in Manteca have pushed their luck including ones who stripped copper wire from roof-mounted air conditions units up and down Main Street a few years back while the units were operating.
“Older homes are the more popular targets as they have copper plumbing often times as well as copper wire,” Obligacion noted.
Most of Manteca’s municipal copper damage is from replacing copper wiring stolen from underground streetlight boxes.
The end result is sections of streets in Manteca often being left in darkness for weeks at a time as well as forcing the city to spend resources to replace the wiring.
The city for several years has been requiring developers building new subdivisions to literally cement over streetlight utility boxes after covering the wires with sand. When city crews need to go back and work on the lights, they will simply chisel away the concrete and then repack the wires in sand and pour cement over that again.
Despite the time and cost involved in such a procedure the city still ends up saving money.
While the city incurs hundreds of dollars in expense each time copper wire is ripped from underground vaults, the thefts barely get a few cents per pound for the copper they steal and recycle.
Some thieves have become so brazen they are stealing the copper in broad daylight.
The city also has lost other items to metal thieves including cast iron manhole covers. In one instance three years ago, thieves driving through a neighborhood under construction saw a fire hydrant that had yet to be connected and tossed it into a truck and drove off. Because police were summoned quickly they were caught in short notice.
Manteca — and surrounding farmlands — has been plagued with metal theft for more than 10 years. Farmers often lose copper for irrigation pumps that not only cost them money to repair but if it prevents them from irrigating crops at key times it results in crop damages and losses.
Thieves have also been known to steel aluminum irrigation pipe for recycling as well as aluminum bleacher seats.
Foreclosed homes have been prime targets for years for the theft of copper from air conditioning units, wiring inside walls sand even pipes under sinks. Some of the more brazen thefts have included stealing parts of garage doors.