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Gone in five minutes

  • Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Despite tougher laws, copper theft continues to be a problem in Williamsburg County. However, the valuable wiring is not the only metal thieves are looking for. Criminals have gone as far as ripping the entire air conditioning unit for its aluminum and parts. MICHAELE DUKE

It takes a theft less than five minutes to destroy a residential air conditioner in search for less than $40 dollars worth of copper. Copper theft isn't anything new in Williamsburg County. In 2011, The News reported the theft of 27 air conditioners from the school district. The crime was one of many copper-associated crimes that year.   Theft of copper basically hasn't wavered despite a law passed that same year that requires sellers of copper to first obtain a permit from their local sheriff's office before taking the metal to a scrap yard. In fact, it seems the perpetuators are broadening their illegal venture.   On the local level, Kingstree Police officer Robert E. Lee said copper theft peaked in the months of October and November. At that time, the police department conducted a two-month long investigation that has resulted in the arrest of four suspects. However, Lee said many other arrests are coming. "By the time we finish there should be an estimated 25 to 40 warrants served on five individuals," said Lee. He said most of the crimes occurred at abandoned houses and businesses. "We're just now coming upon them because nobody is there," said Lee. "We actually get out and walk around every place now to determine whether anything is taken."   Lee said copper is not the only metal thieves are looking for. "There has been an increase over the past few months of copper theft, but also aluminum theft, and other materials - just an increase across the board." That may explain the reason behind the criminals ripping out the entire unit at some places. In Kingstree for example, a vacant building on Main Street and a former day care center on Martin Luther King Boulevard had their units ripped off the wall. The unit contains a plethora of sellable material such the aluminum, the coils, and the motor.   Some thieves are taking advantage of vacant or unoccupied buildings in the rural setting. Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office deputies have arrested two suspects from Georgetown County in connection with stripping of the electrical systems at St. Mark Elementary School and two others from Clarendon County in connection to copper theft of Cades-Hebron Elementary School. Between December 13 and 16, three churches in Greeleyville were targeted.   Under the statute, an individual can only transport up to 10 pounds of copper at a time. However there is nothing in the law that regulates how much copper can be transported over a given time period. "There's nothing to regulate how much copper they can sell in a week, or month or a year," said Johnson. "You can transport 10 pounds, go home and get another 10 pounds."   Because it is hard to trace, copper theft is a very lucrative business. "When you bring (copper) coils that have been cut up, you can't identify that," said Johnson. "All we can do is get a list of names of who sold copper during a particular timeframe and we go talk to them."   In response to the continuing problem, lawmakers are ready to toughen the existing law. Bill S.732 will strengthen the law passed in 2011. However until answers come or the price of copper plummets from its average $3.30 per pound, recyclers will continue to work closely with law enforcement and citizens will have to remain vigilant, or consider purchasing a fabricated cage to protect their vulnerable and valuable piece of equipment. Anyone with information regarding these types of crimes can call the KPD at (843) 355-5435 or the WDSO at (843) 355-6381. Callers can remain anonymous.

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