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High metal prices attract thieves

| Sunday, Jan. 29, 2006

What do ornamental brass from a church in Kittanning, titanium from a Lower Burrell company and metal grates from drainage culverts near Kittanning have in common?

They all were stolen in the past two months and the thieves, according to local and state police, hoped to make a quick buck selling them for scrap.

While they might not seem like much, local thefts are part of a growing problem across the country tied to the rising price of metals. As prices have shot up, so too have the number of reported thefts.

Among the incidents nationally have been $35,000 worth of air conditioners stolen for their copper coils from an apartment complex in Montgomery, Ala., and thieves wearing spiked boots who climbed power poles to cut down 600-feet of copper cable used to operate historic trolleys in Yakima, Wash., thereby closing the ride for the season.

Then there is the case of the real estate broker in Springfield, Ohio, who bought a house that he planned to fix up and sell. Before he could do that, however, thieves came along and stole the aluminum siding as far up the house as they could reach.

Apparently not satisfied, the thieves returned a few days later and broke in, stealing all of the copper plumbing pipe they could find.

In the case of the Lower Burrell titanium, a man and woman were seen by neighbors driving to a steel plant and trying to load the metal into their vehicle.

The boldness of thieves has been fueled by a steep jump in metal prices.

Aluminum, one of the most common and accessible metals, started 2005 at about 70 cents per pound on world metal exchanges. It recently was trading at about $1.13 -- a 61 percent increase.

On the other hand, aluminum stockpiles have increased of late. Anticipated higher production coupled with slower demand, experts say, should result in easing aluminum prices.

But one of the wild cards in the supply and demand equation has been China, which has been aggressively buying scrap aluminum around the world.

Copper, another common metal used in homes, wiring and construction, is up 53 percent in the past six months to about $2.22 per pound on world metals exchanges.

Industry sources show that copper stockpiles are have been very snug through 2005, and should remain so as anticipated new refining capacity has been slow to come on line.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a Washington, D.C.-based industry trade group, said its 1,200 members are on constant look-out for unscrupulous peddlers.

"No reputable dealer would accept a lot of the things that get stolen," said David Krohne, director of communications for ISRI. "And if they do end up with something, they are generally very willing to work with law-enforcement officials."

That was exactly what happened when the ornamental brass stolen from St. Mary's, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Kittanning. Police charged Kurt P. Mueller, 40, of Kittanning, and Wayne Allen Kasputis, 39, of Manor Township, after checking with P.J. Greco & Sons along nearby Tarrtown Road.

Police said Mueller and Kasputis had sold the items in early January, and Greco officials were able to quickly check their records and point law officials in the right direction, leading to the arrests. Greco officials also were able to locate and return all but three or four of the brass items that were taken.

ISRI has a set of practices for scrap dealers, including getting current identification from sellers, and even making a copy of their driver's license and the make, model and license number of the seller's vehicle for future reference. ISRI also works directly with law enforcement.

"When we are notified by enforcement officials of something that has been stolen, we send out an e-mail to almost our entire membership alerting them," Krohne said.

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