Martin County law officials join effort against ‘epidemic’ of copper thefts

FORT PIERCE — Metal thefts on the Treasure Coast are at epidemic levels, police say, prompting Treasure Coast law enforcement agencies to develop a multiagency approach to solving the crimes.

Representatives from Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties met at the Fort Pierce Police Department headquarters Feb. 2 to discuss how to share information and target criminals, said Fort Pierce Detective Charles Donnon.

The Martin County Sheriff’s Office “continues to receive numerous burglary and theft reports involving items that have a recyclable value, such as air conditioner units and catalytic converters,” said Rhonda Irons, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.

“Detectives have made some arrests recently and find most times the offender will tell them they have a substance abuse problem and needed to make money to buy drugs.”

In Fort Pierce, Donnon was assigned to investigate metal thefts in August. He said there have been about 100 of those reported since then in the city alone.

“We know other agencies in the area are dealing with the same suspects we are,” Donnon said. “Our hope with putting together a task force is for better communications (across borders) so we don’t miss anything.”

Police hope that that approach, and the creation of a new St. Lucie County ordinance aimed at curbing metal theft crimes, could serve as a model for other Treasure Coast law enforcement departments. That law goes into effect Thursday.

The hope is that the new ordinance will help St. Lucie County’s law enforcement halt this type of crime that targets vacant properties and new construction sites.

Martin County does not currently have a metal theft ordinance, nor is it looking at creating one, according to Gabriella B. Ferraro, communications and outreach coordinator for the Martin County Board of County Commissioners.

Lt. Tony Consalo at Indian River Sheriff’s Department said a similar ordinance is on the table with their county officials.

Law enforcement in all three counties is now sharing facts in an attempt to identify criminals, said Vero Beach Police Capt. Keith Touchberry.

“We do meet on occasions and exchange information all the time with other law enforcement agencies to enhance information and any suspects that may be crossing jurisdictional lines,” Touchberry said. “The goal, obviously, is to make as many arrests as we can.”

Touchberry said Vero Beach has seen a steady increase of copper wire and other metals being stolen over the last three years, and that the numbers coincide with national trends.

“It’s not like everybody started doing this last week,” he said.

Part of the problem, Donnon and Touchberry say, is it has been too easy to sell scrap metal, which is virtually unidentifiable.

But that is expected to change as cities are looking at ordinances such as St. Lucie County Ordinance No. 11-025.

“What we’re expecting with this new county ordinance that has been passed it will be easier for us to track what’s coming in because instead of just being able to go in there and get cash on the spot, now they’re going to have to sign paperwork and be sent a check to a residence,” Donnon said.

Under the new ordinance anyone selling scrap nonferrous metal such as copper wire will be paid through the mail, a check being sent directly to a home address instead of cash being handed out.

The photographs of the item being sold, the person selling it and other details are then entered into a database within 24 hours of the transaction, and uploaded to a site that is monitored by law enforcement.

“So far we have not had any problems with the people we are buying the material from coming up with the information needed proving ownership,” said Ardie Rudd, vice president of operations at Atlantic Coast Recycling in Fort Pierce. “If they can prove ownership of the material, we issue them a check at that time (if they work for an established company), if they are not a business owner then it is mailed to a home address, not a post office box.”

A similar ordinance is in effect in Orange County, Rudd said, and another law is under consideration at the state level, said Fort Pierce police spokesman Dennis McWilliams.

The new ordinance and the online database tracking the movement of scrap metals will make investigating these crimes easier, said Detective Robert Valentine with the St. Lucie Sheriff’s Office.

“If I get one case today and one case tomorrow I was actually having to call the scrap yards or go down there and talk about it where with this I will have direct access to the database so all the transactions will be uploaded,” Valentine said. “It saves me time and effort.”

If you witness a crime in progress or have information regarding a crime call the Treasure Coast Crime Stoppers at 800-273-8477 or visit tcwatch.org.

Article source: http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2012/feb/27/treasure-coast-law-officials-working-together-02/

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