The Investigators: Copper Crooks - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

The Investigators: Copper Crooks

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Not one, but two laws are on the books to prohibit the sale and purchase of stripped copper and coils. Yet Andy Wise found thieves in Shelby County still ripping it off schools, churches and homes and taking it right across the river. Not one, but two laws are on the books to prohibit the sale and purchase of stripped copper and coils. Yet Andy Wise found thieves in Shelby County still ripping it off schools, churches and homes and taking it right across the river.
MEMPHIS, TN -

(WMC TV) - Despite both a Tennessee state law and a Memphis city ordinance written to curtail illegal scrap metal sales, records show there hasn't been a single prosecution in Shelby County of someone selling or buying prohibited scrap metal since 2009.

The result, property owners and managers have told Action News 5, is thieves are destroying thousands of dollars a year in air conditioning units and condensers to strip them clean of their copper tubing and coils.

"You can just look at the wiring," said Mike Warr, executive vice president of Porter-Leath, a Memphis resource for at-risk children, as he displayed one of 19 air conditioning units stripped right off the roof of Porter-Leath's Head Start school at 4207 American Way.

"They bring their tools, snip and cut," Warr said. "$196,000 in damages. Had to shut down the school for a week. 260 kids."

"I've lost eight units in a year," said Bill Kenner, principal broker of Prime Properties, which owns and manages 40 rental properties in Memphis. "Not just their copper, but the entire units. It's $1,200 to replace each one."

The Memphis City Council passed an ordinance in 2007 to curb the sale of prohibited scrap metal, primarily copper tubing and air conditioning coils. The ordinance requires legitimate scrap sellers to be licensed, keep a buyer's log and invoke a 10-day waiting period on sales to allow for monitoring by law enforcement, a procedure called "tag-and-hold."

The ordinance closely mirrors a Tennessee statute:  TCA Title 62, Chapter 9. The statute declares the sale of prohibited scrap metal a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and up to a $250,000 fine.

But records requests made of the Memphis city attorney, the Shelby County sheriff and the Shelby County district attorney general revealed despite thousands of thefts, burglaries and vandalism cases since the ordinance's inception, the county has not prosecuted a single violator of the ordinance or statute in three years.

"It doesn't seem to be effective at all," said Kenner of the ordinance.

"If we're not seeing any of the cases, then, obviously there just aren't cases being made that fit that ordinance," said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich. "However, that doesn't mean there isn't prosecution of those who steal scrap metal."

Weirich said the county's database doesn't break down theft, burglary, aggravated burglary and vandalism cases in a way that will isolate the ones involving scrap metal. The total number of cases, she said, number in the "tens of thousands."

Lt. David Edmonds, commander of the Shelby County Sheriff's ALERT (Area Law Enforcement & Retail Team) unit, insisted his officers work closely with licensed, legitimate scrap dealers like Larry Walker, owner of Midtown Auto Parts & Salvage, 1670 Chelsea Ave.

As required by the ordinance, Walker "tags-and-holds" scrap metal for 10 days before completing any sales. He keeps a "Do Not Buy" list of suspect sellers and reports daily to ALERT.

Edmonds' undercover officers told Action News 5 Walker's daily reports have led to the arrests of scrap metal thieves attempting to sell stolen copper, coils, even cars.

"I was born and raised in Memphis, and I take it very personally when people try to steal things," said Walker. "And if we can help them get someone off the streets for "11/29" (11 months, 29 days), that's the whole goal for it."

"Without the cooperation and the involvement of the scrap yards, a lot of our cases wouldn't happen because we can't be everywhere at one time," said Edmonds.

One example:  47-year-old Paul Timbs, Jr., of Frayser.

ALERT undercover officers arrested Timbs, Jr., last March on charges of theft of property and vandalism after one of their scrap yard sources tipped them off. According to his arrest affidavit, Timbs, Jr., stole more than $60,000 worth of copper and wiring from several radio stations' tower facilities at 3627 Benjestown Rd. in Frayser.

Edmonds said the scrap yard's cooperation led to surveillance that caught Timbs, Jr., in the act.

"He was not charged with the attempted sale, but he was hit with the theft charges (in order to incur higher penalties)," said Edmonds.

Timbs, Jr., told the Action News 5 Investigators his lawyer has prohibited him from answering questions.

Both law enforcement and licensed scrap dealers said the real problem is thieves and unlicensed scrap metal sellers are smuggling the stolen property into Arkansas to sell it. Arkansas has neither a state law nor any city ordinances restricting scrap metal sales.

In fact, criminal records indicated Timbs, Jr., attempted to sell the stolen scrap from the radio stations to a recycling company in Crittenden County, AR.

"We need some laws about that across the river," said Warr. "Take away the market for that kind of scrap. That's about the only way I know how to stop it."

As long as there is no regulation of scrap metal sales in Arkansas, there will be a market for scrap metal sales in Arkansas -- a bull market that will be a bear on both commercial and residential property owners.

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