Copper thieves get killed cutting into power lines High price sends crooks on quest for quick buck By Wendy Koch USA TODAY At least seven men in five states have been fatally electrocuted since July while hacking through power lines to steal wire made of copper, which has been commanding near-record prices, police say. “It is a growing problem with the rise in the price of metals,” says Lt. Shea Smith of the Greenville County Sheriff's Office in South Carolina. Smith says one thief died Aug. 30 and another July 7. Both were found with wire cutters and other tools that suggested their intent. He says at least 30 more copper thefts have occurred in the county so far this year. Nationwide, police report copper thieves stealing wires from air conditioning units, exposed pipes from underneath homes, vases from graveyards in Sumter, S.C., and bells from a church in Yonkers, N.Y. “It's surprising to find two deaths in such a short time frame,” Shea says. “Most people who steal copper find the easiest way to do it,” such as taking it from a construction site. “It's three (deaths) this year alone” in Detroit, says 2nd Deputy Chief James Tate of the city's police. On Monday, he says, the body of Walter Marihugh, 24, was discovered after he apparently tried to cut cables from a public lighting box in a vacant lot. Tate says a similar electrocution occurred two months ago and a third earlier in the year. Police have reported three deaths since July in Fort Worth, Pineville, W.Va., and Aurora, Colo. There are no national figures, but the number of copper thefts and related deaths is “probably at the highest level it's ever been,” says Kenneth Geremia, spokesman for the Copper Development Association, a trade group. He says copper is completely recyclable and can sell for $3 a pound at scrap yards. Demand from China, India and other countries for copper for use in housing and industry has doubled the metal's value in a year. Thieves don't always take precautions. “It's a Russian roulette kind of situation. If they cut the wrong wire, they're at risk,” says Stan Partlow, director of physical security for American Electric Power, a utility with 5 million customers in 11 states. He says a rise in thefts from its power lines and substations has left the public and utility workers with power outages, loose wires or exposed equipment and has caused the deaths of two thieves in Boone County, W.Va., and Pike County, Ky. “It's very difficult” to tell if scrap copper is stolen, because much of it is very commonly used material, says Bryan McGannon, spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an association of 3,000 scrap yards. He says workers are trained to look for stolen items, and his group alerts scrap dealers by e-mail of large thefts.