Stolen copper gutters latest trend in metal thefts

They came for Benjamin Feldman's copper gutters the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, ripping two 10-foot sections from each side of his stone house in Homeland.

Last week, someone made off with downspouts from a house around the corner.

There was another theft, and several attempted, on nearby Saint Dunstans Road. A month ago on North Charles Street, a Homeland homeowner chased away two would-be gutter thieves in the middle of the afternoon. A home in Ruxton was stripped of its copper on Tuesday.

The current criminal interest in copper is the newest twist to an old problem — and one that has long frustrated law enforcement in Baltimore and beyond. Despite repeated efforts, police have been unable to stop the thieves, or the unscrupulous scrap metal buyers who they say fuel the industry by bartering — no questions asked.

The 62-year-old Feldman mutes his criticism of authorities, noting the shootings and drug dealing that consumes other neighborhoods and taxes the resources of police.

"We don't have violent crime in Homeland," he said. "The worst thing here is that somebody has an argument over who to vote for."

Still, anger mounts as thefts continue and estimates pour in — as much as $1,600 to replace the missing gutters on St. Alban's Way.

"We're being cannibalized," said Feldman, who moved to Homeland 11 years ago, after living two decades in a stately rowhouse on Lafayette Square in Sandtown-Winchester, where he said the neighborhood disintegrated around him.

Residents in Homeland are firing off emails to police commanders, City Hall officials and the media, hoping publicity gets them the attention they say their five-figure property tax payments have not.

On Friday, Feldman's housemate, Charles George, inspected a jury-rigged plastic downspout he bought for $20 and installed on one side of the house until he can get the copper replaced. He'll have to do it soon to adhere to the covenant restrictions that he enforces as a member of Homeland's architectural review committee.

"These thieves don't know how this stuff ruins people's lives and their peace of mind," said George, who shelled out $800 to install motion sensitive spotlights on two tall trees flanking the Georgian-style home.

"Now we're on edge," the 63-year-old architect said. "We have to worry about where we live." Noting the repair estimate fell below the insurance deductible, he said, "You pay to live in the city."

But thieves aren't targeting only Baltimore. Louise Dorrett said she returned to her Ruxton home on Tuesday and found several sections of her vertical copper gutters missing. She had replaced them after the blizzard two years ago and she doesn't want to make another claim with her insurance.

"I can't deal with this happening again," said Dorrett, who has lived in the Baltimore County community for 17 years. "And it doesn't appear that this is something that's going to be resolved. I didn't get the sense that the police were all that interested."

Baltimore City police responded almost immediately to the complaints in Homeland with promises of more patrols and better efforts to determine if the recent thefts are the work of one person or a group. While the theft at Feldman's house was brazen — gutters ripped off the front — police said most thieves are taking gutters off garages in back alleys.

Maj. Sabrina V. Tapp-Harper, who commands the Northern District police station, said she will ask the department's legislative liaison to seek tighter laws governing how scrap yards collect and report information on people hauling in loose metal.

The major also said she'd like the law to require scrap dealers to wait 48 hours before completing transactions, giving police a chance to catch up to stolen goods.

"If a victim makes a report to law enforcement, we'll have time to check out the dealers," Tapp-Harper said. "This is not just a problem in North Baltimore. It's everywhere. … I think it's so easy to offload these things."

City police and other officials already have tried to impose stricter scrutiny of the scrap trade. The city and Baltimore County were among the first jurisdictions in the state to require the dealers to report each transaction to authorities.

But state lawmakers, who set out to implement similar requirements across Maryland, ended up compromising to win the support of the industry. The law they passed last year supersedes city and county ordinances, but police say it has less teeth.

The new law requires the dealers to keep electronic records of transactions and makes them put some items "on hold" to give police a chance to find stolen goods before they're melted down. It also bars dealers from buying items that have been frequent targets of thieves, including catalytic converters, metal beer kegs, cemetery urns, tree grates, water meters, street signs, guardrails, light poles and grave markers.

But unlike the city and county ordinances, the state law does not require dealers to photograph each piece of metal being sold. And most problematic, critics say, is an exemption in the reporting requirement for businesses that regularly contract with scrap dealers. It was designed to make it difficult for lone scavengers but easier for representatives of legitimate companies.

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, who lobbied unsuccessfully to keep the law from applying to the city, called the business exemption a "huge loophole." He blames intense industry lobbying for undoing a city ordinance on the books for more than 15 years.

"If you're a guy who works for a legitimate company, you can now freelance, or if you're the thief, you just need to know a guy who works for a legitimate company and have him take your stuff," Henry said. "That's the loophole we were trying to close."

Baltimore police opposed the state bill, and a spokeswoman for Baltimore County police said the chief expressed concern and tried to negotiate with state legislators to toughen the law.

"Our law gave a lot more teeth to law enforcement than the state bill," said Detective Cathy Batton, the county police spokeswoman.

Proponents of the legislation, including a lobbyist and attorney for one of the area's largest scrap metal companies, said uniform regulations "helps prevent metal theft."

Supporters note that the city and county required tracking all metal, while the state bill limited tracking to metals usually involved with theft, such as cooper and aluminum. They say the distinction eased the burden on businesses but still prevents crime.

A representative from Recovermat Mid-Atlantic in Halethorpe testified in Annapolis last year that his company processes 450 tons of scrap metal each day, averaging 221 customers, with monthly proceeds nearing $1 million.

The company official, Paul Tharp, said that only 1 percent of scrap metal bought in the state of Maryland comes from theft. He said the state law would force him to hire two employees and spend $70,000 to adhere to the reporting requirements.

Gary R. Jones, an attorney and lobbyist for Atlantic Recycling Group, which runs two scrap yards in Baltimore and one in Rockville, said the law now makes it more difficult for someone to steal metal in the city and sell it in Anne Arundel County, which before last year had no reporting requirements.

"We didn't want a patchwork of different regulations in different counties across the state," Jones said. "The best thing to do is not to focus on the material that is being collected, but focus on the guy who is bringing the material in. That's the way you catch the thief."

Local authorities monitored more than 1.7 million pawn and precious metal transactions since May 2010 in Maryland and six other states that are tapped into the reporting system, according to Maryland State Police.

Police across Maryland have made 113,000 inquires into what is called the Regional Automated Property Information Database, leading to 515 criminal cases and 490 arrests for illegal transactions. The biggest case, state police said, involved $2.5 million in stolen scrap metal.

A month ago, troopers in Cecil County found a couple pulling a wagon with smoking rubber in it, police said. They had been using ladders to climb telephone poles, where they cut down wires and then burned off the rubber coating to get to the copper, authorities said.

A key component to the law is electronic filing, which gives police real-time access to what scrap dealers barter. Officers can compare information from a police report to a pending transaction at a scrap yard and intervene in time to catch the thief and seize the stolen metal.

In theory, that could help victims such as Feldman and George. But it works only if the gutter being sold can be linked to the gutter stolen. Few people tag their gutters; Feldman and George didn't. But they said they might put some marks on their new ones.

Also, gutters and downspouts are not on the banned list. The sponsor of the state bill, Sen. James DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said that unlike light poles and manhole covers, gutters are easily broken and mangled, which is what thieves do before trying to sell them to make them look more like scrap and less like they came off a stately house in Homeland.

"They will cut it up into pieces or even set it on fire so it looks old," DeGrange said.

Baltimore police couldn't provide a number of recent copper or metal thefts. But the homeowner's association in Homeland listed several cases in recent weeks, including the one in which a resident chased a suspect down the street.

George and Feldman said they think they were home when the thief struck. They remember hearing a loud noise the night of Nov. 22, but didn't notice the missing gutters until the day after Thanksgiving.

They think someone parked out front and quickly yanked down the long downspouts, which are attached with pins to make them easy to remove for cleaning.

"When we replace them, we will make them not so easy to remove," George said. "It's a needless aggravation, and a needless expense."

Notable metal thefts in Baltimore area

•Seventeen manhole covers each weighing 100 pounds are taken from streets in Southeast Baltimore in July 2010

•More than 320 catalytic converter are sawed off and stolen from cars in Baltimore County in the first 10 months of 2006, up from 50 reported the year before

•A couple from Arnold were charged in January 2008 with stealing 14 aluminum bleacher seats from three Anne Arundel County parks.

•Vandals police say were disguised as utility workers stole 130 hot-wired aluminum light poles in November 2005. Each pole stood about 30 feet tall and weighed 250 pounds, and cost $750.

•Two 300-pound bronze doors each valued at $30,000 were stolen off the hinges at the downtown Baltimore Circuit Courthouse in March 2007.

Source: Baltimore Sun, Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel county police.

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