Fighting for tougher punishments for copper crooks

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MESA, Ariz. -- For the thieves it's quick cash, but police say urban mining for copper is out of control. In fact, criminals are going to new lengths to make off with metal.

Michael Pollack owns Pollack Real Estate Investments, but he's also a copper-theft victim.

"It's churches, it's schools, it's county, state buildings," he said. "It needs to be stopped."

Not even strip malls are off limits for crooks looking for copper.

"This is a situation that is very serious," Pollack said.

He believes an organized crime ring ripped him off, stripping copper out of 20 air-conditioning units. The thieves clearly went to a lot of trouble to reach the rooftop.

"This is an operation that takes a minimum of three people to successfully clean out a place like this as quickly as you would need to," Pollack pointed out.

To replace the units, Pollack estimates he'll have to shell out $150,000.

"We actually refer to it as urban mining for metal in the urban environment," said Peoria police public information officer Jay Davies. "Largely, these things are out in public places where people aren't necessarily looking so the crooks see it as an easy target."

That is why a new statewide database was created. As of Jan. 1, all businesses in Arizona that are in the business of trading in scrap metal are required to enter transactions into the AzDPS LeadsOnline system.

In Peoria, the technology has already paid off.

"We were just fortunate to get really one of the first cases that utilized the database to make an arrest for a metal theft," Davies explained.

Peoria police arrested two men in December for copper thefts.

"They told us themselves, 'We need about a hundred bucks a day for drugs,' and that's what they're able to get with just a few jobs," Davies said.

Pollack is hopeful the new database will not only help law enforcement track those stealing copper but also the businesses buying it.

"You only steal this if you're planning on selling it and so if you're planning on selling it, logic tells any of us with half a brain, if you're planning on selling it you have to sell it some place, don't you?" Pollack said. "So somebody is buying it, there's no question about that."     

Pollack is now pushing for toucher penalties.

"We're talking about felonies now, but they're going to have to be more severe," he said. "We can't put this off. This is not something that can wait another six months or a year or two years."

In response to a growing number of victims, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, Rep. Tom Forese, Sgt. Theresa Clark, Michael Pollack and others will gather Wednesday at 11 a.m. on the Rose Garden lawn at the State Capitol to discuss new initiatives and new legislation to fight copper theft.