Cable thefts can leave victims unable to call 911

EVERETT — Over the years, Snohomish County has had its share of scrap-metal thefts.

The crimes have brought a spectrum of reactions and consequences: anger, sadness, irritation and risks to public safety.

Crooks have stolen church bells, funeral urns, bronze vases from grave sites, catalytic converters from cars, brass fittings for firefighting, sewer grates, manhole covers and even a 3,121-pound propeller.

These days, the hot target is copper cable wire used for Internet access, television and other telecommunications.

Culprits are willing to go to great heights to swipe it.

Frontier Communications locally has seen seven cable cut-and-runs in recent weeks.

In the days leading up to Labor Day, thieves struck in Everett and Gold Bar, leaving 350 customers without telecommunications service. In July, Frontier reported four cable thefts in an eight-day period in the Marysville, Snohomish, Skykomish and Granite Falls areas. No arrests have been made. Across the mountains, the thieves twice sliced and scrammed with Frontier cable lines in Yakima.

“It’s a very large safety concern and it does cost us a lot of money” between supplies and repairs, said Ken Baldwin, Frontier Communications general manager for the Everett area.

The cost, however, isn’t Baldwin’s major concern.

Many customers, particularly the elderly, can’t call 911 in an emergency after their cable is cut.

“For many, their phone is literally their lifeline,” Frontier spokeswoman Emily Tantare said.

Then, there is the concern for the thieves themselves.

Telecommunications companies often share poles with power suppliers. Many Frontier lines are located near electric lines carrying high-voltage currents. As little as four feet routinely separates a cable line from a live wire. Nationally, dozens of people have been electrocuted over the years trying to strip metal from power poles.

“You can’t put a value on a life,” Baldwin said.

Statewide, Frontier has had 16 cable thefts during the past 12 months., including a dozen that happened well above ground level.

During the previous 12-month period, there were 11 cable thefts, including four off the ground.

There have been no arrests.

Telecommunications thieves haven’t been so lucky in West Virginia, where there were 48 arrests in 2012 and 12 through May of this year, according to statistics kept by Frontier.

During a theft in Granite Falls last month, someone climbed up poles and cut the cable with a hacksaw.

“It appears the crooks were scared off (and were) interrupted because the majority of cable was left on the ground,” Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

In Marysville, thieves cut a support cable at midspan, causing the telecommunications line to droop, which made it easier to access, collect, coil and store the wire in a vehicle.

Some of the crimes have been committed in remote areas. Machetes have been found where the thieves apparently were cutting their way through brambles and brush to reach the poles. It can be a work-intensive crime. After the theft, someone has to melt the plastic and rubber casings off the metal, typically over a burn barrel or fire pit.

The thefts from telecommunications companies aren’t just happening in Snohomish County.

In August, Verizon Communications reported more than $300,000 worth of FiOS installation equipment, tools and copper wire stolen from three work centers in Maryland. It also reported copper wire stolen from 13 other locations in the same state.

In April, Verizon offered up to $50,000 in reward money as it tried to catch scrap-metal thieves in Pennsylvania. They were blamed for stealing 9,000 feet of copper cable and causing $62,500 in damage by cutting cables.

Scrap metal is an $87 billion industry each year in the United States, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington, D.C. Thieves follow the market and know the metal can be hard to trace.

“It has been a problem that seems to creep up when the cost of metals goes up,” Snohomish PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.

Over the years, the PUD has worked more closely with law enforcement agencies, and it has been stamping identifying information on its wire to alert scrap-metal dealers.

“We just felt it was one more thing we could do to try to minimize the thefts,” Neroutsos said.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau reported an 81 percent increase in insurance claims stemming from metal theft when comparing three-year periods between 2008 and 2011.

Metal theft has been making headlines across the Puget Sound region this summer.

In June, the FBI announced that two men were arrested after allegedly stealing 7,200 feet of copper wire from runway light towers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The thefts rendered the light towers inoperable, which posed a threat to airline safety. The wire cost $77,000 when it was first installed in 2008.

Around the same time, King County prosecutors announced criminal charges against two men who allegedly stole more than four miles worth of copper wiring from Sound Transit light-rail tracks in 2010 and 2011.

One of the men pocketed $39,000; the other, about $4,000, officials said.

The man who made the most money had a state-issued business license, which allowed him to scrap the metal with little, if any, scrutiny by the metal buyers, prosecutors said. The replacement cost of the 70,000 pounds of copper wire is estimated at $1.3 million.

State lawmakers have tried to crack down on scrap-metal theft.

In 2007, the Legislature tightened the rules for scrap-metal companies and how they keep records. Since then, lawmakers have toughened penalties for metal thefts to account not only for the cost of the stolen material but the cost of repair and the damage to public safety. A new law strengthens requirements for scrap-metal buyers to document their purchases from would-be sellers. Those requirements include either videotaping the sale or taking copies of the seller’s valid identification.

Frontier officials hope people who suspect metal theft near power and telecommunications lines will report what they see.

They suggest calling 911 immediately and then notifying Frontier’s security hotline at 800-590-6605.

“Call 911,” Baldwin said, “You could be saving someone’s life.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446,

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