Scooped by The State on my own danged story

Our late, lamented AC units, right after the deed was done.

Some of y’all were disparaging The State on a previous post. Well, I’ll say this for them: They just scooped me on my own blasted story.

Of course, I let them. Remember that list of posts I’ve been MEANING to get to, which I wrote about back here? Well, one of them was about copper theft:

Metal fabricator Stanley Bradham delivered two 300-pound concrete slabs to a Pickens Street business Tuesday, then lowered a couple of 2- to 3-ton heating and air-conditioning units on top.

But it is what Bradham did next that theft-weary business and church leaders are hoping will finally slow the alarming rate of vandalism aimed at removing copper wiring – a trend that not only inconveniences victims, but also drives up their insurance rates.

Bradham bolted a lockable, customized, 350-gauge unibody steel cage over each of the units and welded the cages to the cement pads, which are secured by 12-inch anchors in the ground.

“It stops your access to the top of the unit, so you can’t get in,” said Bradham, of the newly formed Carolina Copper Protection company in Hopkins. “For the cost factor, it’s a very visual deterrence.”

That Pickens Street business was ADCO.

This is a story that goes under the heading of the Jerry Ratts dictum, “News is whatever happens to, or interests, an editor.” Or former editor, in this case. Jerry was a bit of a cynic, but he had a point. I mean, you know, this copper theft was a serious problem and all, but it only became dire quite recently, and suddenly…

Several weeks back, copper thieves destroyed both of our AC units to get a few coils of copper. We’re talking $8,000-$10,000 worth of damage for maybe, maybe $400 worth of metal.

Actually, that’s the high estimate. Back right after this happened, when I was in full fury over it, I interviewed Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott about it, and he said it was probably more like between $30 and $100. Which is… mind-boggling to me. I mean, it seems way easier to actually to out and work for that amount of money. I mean, mow a lawn or something — way less risk.

But apparently, it’s not as much trouble as I thought to tear up an AC unit that way. Chief Scott says they’re in and out in 3-5 minutes. Otherwise, he’d catch more of them.

It started with empty or abandoned commercial buildings. Now, he says, they’re hitting everything — churches, law offices, even private homes. Having your unit on a roof is no defense. Thieves destroyed 17 units from the top of the Dream Center at Bible Way Church on Atlas Road. Then, after the units were replaced, they hit again.

In fact, as Roddie Burriss reports:

In 2009, Southern Mutual wrote checks for $365,000 worth of losses due to copper thefts, according to Robert Bates, executive vice president.

In 2010, the company paid $1.2 million in copper theft losses to 174 member churches. Because most of the churches it covers are located in the Palmetto State, 109 of the 174 copper theft claims were in South Carolina, accounting for losses totaling $839,000, Bates said.

Through March 2011, Bates said the company already had paid churches $552,000 in copper loss claims, putting it well on the way to a $2 million payout for the year in these thefts…

I ran into Roddie and photographer Tim Dominick in the alley outside our building yesterday — and realizing they were doing MY story, I lapsed back into editor mode. Let the reporters and photographers do the work, then comment it. It feels natural.

So here’s the commentary part… Obviously, Something Must Be Done about this problem. Back when we were without AC, I had a suggestion, which I posted on Twitter. It was on a particularly warm day last month (I told you I’d been sitting on this for awhile):

Can’t breathe. No air-conditioning all week. Thieves stole copper. We need to bring back flogging. Or keelhauling. Something painful…

Sonny Corleone would say it’s just business, but I was taking it very, very personally. Chief Scott has a more constructive, and constitutional idea than my sweaty rantings: Make it harder to fence the stuff.

He’s backing, and testified in favor of, legislation sponsored by Rep. Todd Rutherford that would stiffen penalties (although, I’m sorry to say, no flogging), and make the businesses that buy scrap metal get legitimate ID from the people who sell them copper. Which would seem sort of like a no-brainer. As the chief said, “When you ride up on a bicycle, and you have two air-conditioning coils, you’re probably not a legitimate air-conditioning repair man.”

Chief Scott, and other law enforcement professionals, have enough problems, what with people coming at them with AK-47s. And yet they are spending more and more of their time fighting this rising tide of copper theft, and it’s pretty overwhelming — and not only to the angry, sweaty victims.

During our interview (which, like so many of my interviews, took place at the Capital City Club), the Chief looked out over the city and said, wondering, “Just LOOK at all those air-conditioners…”

Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott: "Just LOOK at all those air-conditioners..."

12 thoughts on “Scooped by The State on my own danged story

  1. Brad

    Actually, the Rutherford bill would require more than mere ID: “A secondary metals recycler shall maintain a record containing the date of purchase, name and address of the seller, a photocopy of the seller’s identification, the license plate number of the seller’s motor vehicle, the seller’s photograph and thumbprint, a clear photograph or video, weight or length, and size or other description of the nonferrous metals purchased, amount paid for it, and a signed statement from the seller stating that he is the rightful owner or is entitled to sell the nonferrous metals being sold.”

    For my libertarian friends who think that’s a bit much — hey, it’s a serious problem, and at least no one is calling for flogging.

    OK, I did, but I was kidding. Or at least I’m kidding NOW, since our AC has been restored.

  2. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    I sold some random bits of gold jewelry a while back and had to provide ID and sign something. At least gold is worth what it’s worth–the copper thefts are especially bothersome to us, I think, because the huge waste of it all, plus you can more easily protect your jewelry than your A/C unit.

    If I understood Chief Scott’s briefing to the City Council Public Safety committee last week, “nonferrous metals” is supposed to mean copper, although anything that isn’t a ferrous alloy of iron would qualify–gold, silver, aluminum….

  3. Brad

    Specifically, the bill says, “‘Nonferrous metals’ means metals not containing significant quantities of iron or steel, including copper wire, cooper clad steel wire, copper pipe, copper bars, copper sheeting, aluminum, or a product that is a mixture of aluminum and copper… and does not include the delineated list of certain metals prohibited by the provisions of Section 16-17-681.”

  4. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    There appears to be no subsection 681–it jumps from 680 to 685 in the online Code.

    680 talks about beer kegs– in addition to what you excepted, there’s also “, catalytic converters, and stainless steel beer kegs or containers” and aluminum cans are explicitly excepted. I guess gold and silver, though nonferrous, generally–I don’t know if there might be a ferrous alloy, are not expressly included. It doesn’t say “including without limitation,” and there is a legal maxim that says “if you say one, you exclude the rest.”

  5. Steven Davis

    “350-gauge unibody steel cage”

    So he put a cage with wire the diameter of a human hair around the unit? Wire gauge numbers get smaller as the diameter of the wire gets larger. 16 gauge is about what you’d find in household wiring, 2 gauge is what you’d find in battery cables.

  6. Mark Stewart

    Stealing copper is the new car stereo theft nonsense. Same addicts, different decade.

    Not that I would ever recommend it or do it, but that old urban myth about the razor blades duct-taped to the back of the stereo unit sounds just about right for these guys…

  7. Doug Ross

    And are we assuming that the police will be able to review all the collected personal information whenever they feel like it and use the lists as potential suspects?

    I thought all my tax dollars spent in Blythewood were going toward stopping all this crime downtown.

  8. Barry

    I know a few metal recyclers through my job – they are in a tough position.

    They get drivers licenses now – but they can’t accuse someone of stealing something based on just an assumption. If the person bringing the scrap to them had proper id, and gives them a legit address and phone number – they they are going to take the material.

    I think the ones I deal with do try to check things out and do report questionable purchases. But you can imagine that in the middle of the day, this isn’t the biggest thing for police to run down and check out (if a drivers license is legit or not at the local metal scrap yard).

  9. martin

    They arrested 20+ scrap dealers in Spartanburg a few weks ago.

    Why do the pols think a goodly number of scrap dealers (which have sprung up like weeds in my neck of the woods) aren’t directing the thefts? They’re the ones making the big bucks.

  10. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Well, Doug–actually, folks out in the boonies, like Blythewood are more at risk than folks in more populated areas–Adco is more of an anomaly insofar as it is a house, but in a largely abandoned office district at night. Nobody watching the backyard.

    I understand there are some bad operators in the receiving side who don’t question when some apparently freelance person keeps bringing in stuff!

  11. Karen McLeod

    As probably everyone knows, thieves stole about 10 thou in copper downspouts from Trinity. The person to whom they were sold knew they were spouts (they had simply been flattened, but bought them anyhow. We should be able to do something about this problem.

  12. Doug Ross


    So when will I see a patrol car in my neighborhood watching for the copper thieves?

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