Scrap metal dealers to put paper trail in place in October as law changes
By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — Scrap metal thieves may find a difficult market starting in October.
Authorities hope so.
Local officials say new legislation, signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue in June, will make it easier for law enforcement to track stolen property.
But precious metal dealers will face the brunt of the changes.
Former N.C. Rep. Fred Steen, a Republican from Rowan County, said lawmakers hope new restrictions such as requiring permits for metal recycling operations, fingerprinting copper sellers and issuing checks instead of cash for copper sales of more than $100 will have a minimal impact on legitimate dealers.
“They shouldn’t have major problems with this,” Steen said. “The only people we’re trying to hurt is the thieves.”
Some businesses and vacant homes have endured significant damage done by scrap metal thieves over the past few years.
The damage, Steen said, can sometimes amount to tens of thousands of dollars for property owners.
“A lot of the crime we’re seeing is happening to vacant buildings,” he said. “The real estate business is being killed.”
Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten said thieves have taken advantage of the relatively quick means of cutting copper from air conditioning units, wiring or even power poles.
“There’s really no facet of society that hasn’t faced the consequences of this crime,” Auten said.
In December, deputies arrested seven people accused in a scrap-metal-stealing spree across the county.
One of the worst hit businesses was Extreme Sports near Interstate 85.
A large air conditioning unit sustained more than $60,000 in damage, an arrest report said.
In May, three people were charged with stealing copper wiring from utility poles on N.C. 152 East.
“So often, they do so much damage for a relatively small amount of money,” Auten said. “It’s quick cash and it’s all profit to the perpetrator.”
No end to thefts
It’s an ongoing problem.
Salisbury Police arrested two men Thursday morning in the process of cutting the copper out of an air conditioning unit on Kesler Street.
Deputy Chief Steve Whitley said Justin Jermaine Horton and Shawn Kirkley were arrested after running from officers about 4 a.m.
Police found a partially destroyed air conditioning unit nearby.
Wire cutters and other burglary tools surrounded the unit, Whitley said.
“They were in the process of cutting cables,” he said.
Horton and Kirkley were charged with felony preparation to commit burglary and felony larceny.
Police said they found more property in a nearby vehicle that was stolen from the Winston-Salem area.
Horton was also charged with felony receiving a stolen vehicle.
Auten said deputies frequently deal with scrap metal theft reports, but thieves have also targeted authorities.
In fact, he said, the Sheriff’s Office was victimized when the jail annex was under construction.
“We had metal stolen during the construction process,” he said.
Rowan detectives took a different approach to scrap metal theft in June, charging nine business owners in an undercover sting.
In all cases, Auten said, deputies sold precious metal to business employees without being asked for photo identification, a violation of state law.
Last year, legislators met with law enforcement officials, business owners and insurance providers to find a way to slow the worrying trend, Steen said.
Creating a paper trail, he said, appeared to be the answer.
“The fast cash was the gleaming issue and we had to do something with that,” Steen said. “That’s something we all struggled with.”
‘Weeds out the rats’
Dwayne Holmes, co-owner of Holmes Iron and Metal, said there will be some slight changes on the management side of the scrap yard.
But he thinks it’s positive change.
“To us, it actually weeds out a lot of the rats you get,” Holmes said. “It’ll make it a whole lot easier.”
Despite more paperwork, he said, the real benefit is being able to quickly find customer information and the purchased items.
“If officers are coming in looking for a particular item,” he said, “it makes the job a little easier.”
Nicole Matangira, who also works at the yard, said the business instituted several of the new restrictions last year to help cut down on stolen copper.
“At first, it was an adjustment,” Matangira said, mentioning photo identification as one change. “But it was a good adjustment.”
Already, some of the implemented changes have affected business, Holmes said. Some customers who showed up daily — sometimes several times a day — have disappeared.
“You don’t see those no more,” he said.
Holmes said he’s not sure the new restrictions will actually prevent thieves from selling to dealers, but he hopes the paper trail will help authorities afterward.
“A thief is still going to be a thief,” he said. “They say, ‘I’ll get this $25, $30 and then I’ll deal with that later.’ ”
Auten said recycling operations will have to pay $10 for a permit in the first year and an additional $3 each year after that for renewal.
It’s difficult to see where the legislation might need improvement, he said, until October.
But it’s a start, he said.
“I’m glad they gave us something that improves what we had,” Auten said. “It’s an ongoing work in progress.”
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