Southwest Missourians are beginning to feel the effects of the massive earthquake that hit Chile in March. After 20 percent of Chile's copper output was halted two months ago, copper prices have increased and in turn, copper thefts are starting to increase locally.
"Ozark Electric reported that copper was stripped from three miles of their power poles," said Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly. "As the price goes up, theft goes up too."
In 2008, Missouri legislators passed Senate Bill 1034, which upgraded copper theft to a Class C felony. This bill helped decrease the number of copper thefts law enforcement officers saw for a while, but the crime has steadily increased over the last few months, said Epperly.
"With the new law, those who are caught and convicted receive a harsher punishment," said Epperly. "That will deter some, but there are others who are still going to steal because they need money."
The bill also established a requirement that purchasers must maintain written or electronic records of scrap metal purchases that are over $50. The law includes an exemption for regular customers and business owners who generate scrap metal.
"That has helped combat the problem some too, but many of these people melt the copper down before they sell it," said Epperly. "Once it is melted down it is more difficult to detect stolen copper and determine where it came from."
Although Barry Electric has not had any recent copper thefts, the cooperative is keeping a close eye on the crime trend.
"We haven't had any copper thefts over the last two months, but during the winter months when it is cold and nasty, we don't see many thefts," said Bill Shiveley, Barry Electric general manager and chief executive officer. "During the summer and fall is when we have see most of our problems."
Locally, individuals have cut the ground wires from electric poles and removed around seven feet of copper from poles, said Shiveley. In other portions of the state, thieves have also cut the ground wires at substations and transformers.
"This is very dangerous because once they cut that ground there is a current carrying through the conductor," said Shiveley. "It is very dangerous for anyone who comes into contact with that circuit.
"This is very dangerous for both the person stealing the copper and our linemen," said Shiveley. "If our linemen don't stop and look and make sure all the grounds are there, they can be electrocuted or seriously injured."
In an effort to stop local copper theft, Epperly has instructed deputies to look for individuals transporting large quantities of copper and other metal.
"We hope that the local metal recycling businesses will work with us too," said Epperly. "If someone brings in a couple hundred pounds of copper, they should be questioning where the metal came from. Some of these are legitimate, but some are not."
In addition to stripping copper from electric lines, many thefts have occurred at vacant homes and buildings. In some instances, thieves have returned to the same location multiple times over a period of a few weeks to strip copper wire and water lines.
"We are seeing this at unoccupied property and at new construction sites," said Epperly. "We would like to urge residents to be alert and watch for suspicious activity. If they see something that seems out of the ordinary, they can give us a call, and we will come check it out.
"These calls can be made anonymously," said Epperly. "We just need to know about these things, so that we can stop copper theft and build cases against those who are doing it."
Individuals who notice suspicious activities near electric poles, unoccupied properties or in other areas are encouraged to call the Barry County Sheriff's Department at 847-6556.