In latest caper, thieves steal $110,000 in copper wiring from Grand Forks business
Thieves broke into a Grand Forks wire supply business over the weekend and stole 13,223 pounds of copper wiring worth more than $110,000, wholesale. It's one of the largest such copper thefts, which have been increasing in the region, with a new ...
Thieves broke into a Grand Forks wire supply business over the weekend and stole 13,223 pounds of copper wiring worth more than $110,000, wholesale.
It's one of the largest such copper thefts, which have been increasing in the region, with a new twist: cutting out the middle man, said Tom Rosendahl, president of Dakota Supply Group, 715 S. 48th St., in the city's Industrial Park.
"In these other thefts, it's been electrical contractors hit," he said. "Now they came right to a supplier like me, where they can get a lot more."
Dakota Supply, which has two dozen locations around the region, including in St. Paul, is a wholesale supplier of copper wire and other products to power utilities such as Minnkota Power and to local electrical contractors such as RBB Electric and Century Electric in Grand Forks, both of which have had similar, if smaller, burglaries the past year.
A burglary at Fargo Electric Construction about two weeks ago involved $50,000 worth of copper wiring stolen.
Scrap prices for copper are about $3.50 per pound, a relatively high price, although below record levels of well over $4 in recent years, Rosendahl said.
The theft of metal wiring has become so bothersome, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Wednesday that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has voiced support for her legislation to hit metal thieves harder by making federal cases out of them.
"Metal theft has jumped more than 80 percent in recent years, as thieves steal high-priced metal from critical infrastructure as well as businesses, homes, churches and even Minnesota veterans' graves, causing families pain and threatening public safety," Klobuchar said in a news release. U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is a co-sponsor of her Metal Theft Prevention Act.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau reported that in 2009-2011, more than 25,000 insurance claims related to metal theft were filed, 81 percent more than in 2006-2008. The total cost to the country from such thefts is estimated at more than $900 million.
Business burglaries of copper wire seem to "go in spurts," said Grand Forks Police Sgt. Travis Jacobson. His investigators are contacting Fargo police for comparisons and looking for any possible witnesses or useful security videos from the Industrial Park over the weekend, he said.
If suspects ever get collared, the charges likely would be a B felony, which covers any burglary of $10,000 or above, and carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
"Copper wire thefts have been an issue for us for a number of years," said Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel. The Fargo Electric job was the third one at the same business in about a year, he said. The thieves are getting more organized, he said.
The Fargo theft last month sounds much like the Grand Forks copper wire capers: business door breached, the fork-lift or skid-steer equipment on hand was used to load out the goods, get in, get out, nobody gets hurt.
Rosendahl said the burglars were professional in their own right.
It had to have happened between Saturday afternoon, when the last worker left the premises, and Monday morning when the theft was discovered as soon as the doors opened.
"They pried this door open," Rosendahl said, showing how thieves likely got one garage-style door up, got inside to open another similar door where they had backed up some sort of trailer or truck to the loading dock, and loaded out.
"It had to be at least two guys, probably three or four," Rosendahl said, showing some of the shelves emptied. "They knew what they were after."
They used his forklift to grab some pallets of coiled copper wire from the top shelf, no job for an amateur. They also grabbed boxes of smaller gauge wire.
"All sizes and shapes," he said.
But they knew enough to get some of the heavy-duty wire, worth up to $7.50 a foot.
Cheap aluminum wire, that looks similar inside the plastic insulation, was left undisturbed.
Gleaming copper tubing was left leaning against a rack.
"The layman wouldn't know this," Rosendahl said, pointing out that the "copper-clad steel" grounding rods really contain little copper despite their appearance.
"They took about half our inventory of copper wire," he said. He figures they were limited mostly by the load limits on their trailer or truck, he said.
Rosendahl has been with Dakota Supply for 39 years, and this sort of big theft is a first for him.
But he's not alone.
"Last March we had $30,000 worth of copper wire stolen out of our shop... in the same Industrial Park," said Brian Harris, owner of Century Electric, only two blocks away from Dakota Supply, at 915 48th St. N. "In Grand Forks, you don't think that would happen."
Chad Benson, an owner of RBB Electric, which has locations in Bismarck, Fargo and Crookston as well as at 1123 N. 51st St., Grand Forks, said Dakota Supply is one of his major suppliers.
He was a victim of theft about nine months ago. "We lost about $52,000 of copper wire," he said, in much the same way.
"They somehow dismantled the (security) bars we have across our walk-in doors," he said. "They were able to pop the door jams, get in, then the same thing as at Dakota Supply. They pulled my vehicles out, used the forklift to load up our wire."
Benson, like Rosendahl and Harris, doesn't hold out much hope of seeing the crimes solved because copper wire does not have "DNA" that can positively identify a particular batch.
"It's pretty much a generic number per the wire manufacturer, and whether it comes to Grand Forks or Salt Lake City, Utah, it all comes out with the same stamps," Benson said. "It's pretty hard to prove it's your wire."
Rosendahl said the only mark his company left on the wooden reels, for example, is a paper tag. "You can take that off pretty easily."
Benson said he thinks "it was some type of delivery driver or somebody who has been in the building before. You kind of have to know these bars were on the door in order to be able to pop them."
Rosendahl said he isn't so sure, thinking that anyone could figure what businesses have inventories of copper wire and use the same technique breaking in.
Police: prevention better than cure
Because of the difficulty of recovering stolen wire, much less solving the cases, the best deal is prevention by businesses ponying up for better security, including burglar alarms and surveillance cameras, Lt. Vettel said.
Sgt. Jacobson said Grand Forks police have a special bureau that provides expert assessments to local businesses seeking help on how to upgrade their security.
Benson is a little sheepish about RBB's lack of security before the theft.
"The dumb thing is we sell and install security camera systems, but I didn't have one. Never had one installed," he said.
That is, until the burglary.
"We have got' em now," he said. "We have 16 cameras that watch about every square inch of the building."
Harris said he, too, installed such cameras after his burglary experience, plus alarms.
In fact, he checked his video from last weekend, but could not pick up any traffic on 48th Street at night that might have been the Dakota Supply burglars.
Rosendahl is belatedly installing cameras and alarms.
"I like to believe in the goodness of my fellow man," he said with a rueful smile.
Before this, it was some petty pilfering of a tool here and there. After the Flood of '97, an employee snuck off with a couple of specially ordered generators. "We're still getting payments from him," Rosendahl said.
It wasn't long ago he left supplies sitting outside over night, he said. And it was commonplace until a few years ago for contractors to leave spools of copper wire sitting overnight, over weekends, at job sites. Now things are locked up, boxed up.
As in most such thefts, his company's insurance covered the loss, Rosendahl said.
Right away Monday his employees ordered replacement wire, due in Friday, so his customers are covered, too, he said.
But Rosendahl is not letting this drop.
He has put out a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest of the burglars. At a regular meeting Tuesday night of the Grand Forks Builders and Trade Exchange, he told a rapt audience of the crime as a warning to all.
"We want to make the public aware of this," he said, because the nearly $1 billion-cost every year of such metal thefts gets pushed to consumers in higher construction and repair costs.
"These thefts hurt everyone because we all end up paying for them together," Rosendahl said in his news release. "It's not right and we're going to fight for our customers. We're going to rally the trade industries and their suppliers. We're going to raise the awareness of this problem and we're going to take a proactive stance to prevent this from happening again."
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