By MICHAEL GERSTEIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – They strike at nightfall, attaching heavy cables to trucks to rip exposed copper from irrigation systems and hawk it to unscrupulous scrap dealers.
They are petty thieves, often methamphetamine addicts, investigators say. And they’re costing farmers thousands of dollars in repair costs and insurance rate hikes.
Experts say the problem coincides with the rise and fall of copper prices. During the 2009 stock market crash thefts were rare.
But it’s a problem that’s held steady over the last three years as copper inched back to its pre-recession price.
“It’s kind of cyclical,” said Brian McKenzie, a corn and soybean farmer near Marcellus, in Southwest Michigan.
He says thieves often strike his farm when the weather is warm and copper prices are high.
The scrap price for copper can vary from $.66 per pound to $2.99 per pound, depending on the grade and type of copper, according to OmniSource Corp., a scrap metal company. And prices can change weekly.
Over the last few years, McKenzie said he paid $40,000 to $50,000 to repair damaged irrigation pivots, on top of spiking insurance rates and pricey security measures like alarm systems and clamps to secure copper piping and wire.
“It’s gotten so bad I don’t even claim it on my insurance anymore,” he said.
He recounted one incident where the alarm on one of his pivots went off, alerting him of a theft.
“I actually caught a guy last Christmas and held him at gunpoint,” he said. “The look on that guy’s face after I pulled my shotgun and pulled it in his face – it was priceless.”
But it didn’t stop there.
The thief ran for it, he said, and McKenzie chased him in his vehicle for nearly five miles, at speeds close to 100 miles an hour, before eventually giving up.
Police caught up with the thief, however. McKenzie said he attended his trial speaking on behalf of all farmers facing a similar problem.
The offender received between five and 15 years in prison.
But after thousands of dollars in damage, alarm installations and $8,000 clamps to secure pipes, thefts still happen on his farm, including the loss of a mile of copper wire last year.
Irrigation systems have appealed to thieves for some time, authorities say. They’re often unprotected, in remote areas surrounded by few houses.
And desperate, methamphetamine-fueled addicts often steal copper from other places, too, said State Police Detective Sgt. Todd Peterson in White Pigeon.
He said there’s been a boom in groundwire thefts in the past year, with thieves striking phone and utility companies for valuable copper.
It’s less work than stripping the copper from irrigation systems, though it’s a dangerous process that often results in metal near the stripped wire getting supercharged with electricity, Peterson said.
One abandoned factory near White Pigeon was stripped of every bit of copper wire, requiring an estimated $84,000 in repairs that Fiber By-Products Corp. had to pay, he said.
Police say scrap dealers in Michigan are required to take fingerprints and check IDs before purchasing any metals.
So thieves often cross the border to Indiana to sell scrap, because of the state’s less stringent law, Peterson said.
Some dealers – like OmniSource in Elkhart, Ind., which caught more than six people last year trying to sell stolen metal, said the company’s Chuck Kelley – have police do background checks on sellers who fail to show identification.
Rep. Rick Outman, R–Six Lakes, said he’s looking at whether penalties for copper theft should be strengthened.
He says thefts have been a major problem in Montcalm County.
“One of our big farmers, which is somebody I grew up with, had 20 cases last year,” he said. That meant nearly $20,000 in losses.
Matt Kapp, of the Michigan Farm Bureau said, “It’s problematic that when you need to operate your irrigation system in a potato field, all of a sudden you realize that your irrigation system is malfunctioning. And the reason it’s not functioning is because there’s been copper removed from it.”
State Police records show 1,495 ft. of copper were taken from one farm in St. Joseph County last August. Another 331 ft. were stolen in Nottowa Township last September, and another 10 spans – one of them 100 to 200 ft. – were taken from a farm in Flowerfield Township.