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Ohio’s metal thefts epidemic worsening

Ohio tops U.S. in insurance claims.Cincinnati, Cleveland rank among nation’s 10 hardest-hit areas.

Ohio leads the nation in insurance claims linked to metal theft, according to a new report released today, as metal thieves continue to cause untold amounts of damage to properties across this region.

Victims of metal theft often get stuck with repair bills for thousands of dollars, because the thieves punch through walls, ceilings and floors to access metal wiring and piping. The crime can threaten public safety, because thieves sometimes target communications systems and infrastructure.

Police and Ohio lawmakers have attempted to crack down on the activity by imposing new regulations on scrap yards and devoting more resources to catching criminals. But metal thieves often target unoccupied and unguarded buildings and sites, and the criminal cases can be very difficult to solve. Law enforcement said witnesses are essential to identifying suspects, and they need the public’s help to prosecute the responsible culprits.

“The public needs to be aware that this is happening,” said Lt. Anne Ralston with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. “When they see suspicious activity around a certain location, they need to call law enforcement immediately and report that.”

Between 2010 and 2012, 3,228 insurance claims linked to metal theft were reported in Ohio, the most of any state nationwide, according to a report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Texas had the second most claims, 2,624, followed by Georgia with 1,953 claims. Alaska and Wyoming had the fewest claims, with seven each during that three-year period.

Since 2010, thieves across southern Ohio have stolen copper wiring and pipes from churches, schools, construction sites and many businesses, including an abandoned miniature golf course.

Thieves often feed drug habits

Thieves have stripped metal from many foreclosed homes, often destroying parts of the structures in the process.

In March, a Vandalia resident discovered that a single-family home he owned had been broken into, and someone stole all of the copper water piping in the basement. The basement of the home flooded as a result. The damage was extensive.

In April, a man and a woman entered a construction site in west Dayton and filled up the beds of their pickup trucks with scrap metal and fled. Air-conditioning units in Dayton disappear with some frequency because they contain valuable metals.

On Tuesday, Chris Knox, 37, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court for breaking into at least 20 unoccupied residences in Oakwood and Kettering. Knox cut and removed copper piping and other metal that supplied the furnaces and air conditioning units in the homes, which were either vacant or under renovation, said assistant county prosecutor Ward Barrentine.

Knox then sold the metal at a scrapyard in West Carrollton. Some of the homes he burglarized sustained between $8,000 and $10,000 in property damage.

“This crime destroys people’s structures and makes them uninhabitable, and these are people’s homes,” Barrentine said.

Barrentine said Knox had a heroin habit, and many people steal and sell metal to feed a drug problem.

But the high price of copper and other metals in recent years has partly fueled a rise in thefts, officials said. Copper is the most common type of stolen metal, but thieves also occasionally swipe bronze, brass and aluminum scrap.

Desperation and opportunity are other common motivations for the crimes.

“It doesn’t surprise me (that Ohio leads the country in metal theft claims), considering the downturn in the economy, the number of vacant structures we have and the relatively high price of these metals,” Barrentine said.

Metal theft sometimes not only ruins property — it can disrupt public safety.

Last year, metal thieves who attempted to steal fiber optic cables shut down 911 service in parts of southern Ohio and caused telecommunications outages for thousands residents, officials said.

Earlier this year, three men in Columbus were charged with stealing metal parts from a railroad.

“Unfortunately, the people who are involved in this for money-making reasons are attacking our own infrastructure,” said Ralston, with state patrol.

Scrapyards in Dayton take photographs of metal sellers, and some regularly assist police by reporting suspicious sellers, officials said.

Ralston said Ohio passed a new law that creates an online registry for scrap metal dealers in the state. She said it is another tool to detect illegal practices.

“Police departments, sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement are checking on those scrap dealers to make sure they are operating in compliance with the law, and they are not taking items that are illegal to possess or sell for scrap,” she said.

But police need the public’s help to identify suspects in metal theft cases, because other helpful evidence is not usually available, officials said.

Businesses and homeowners should protect their facilities and properties by locking gates and doors. Security systems can be useful. External lighting can also serve as a deterrent.

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