Metal theft a ma­jor prob­lem in New­ton County

Thieves rav­age lo­cal homes

The Covington News - - Front Page - By Michelle Kim

Ed­i­tor’s note: This is the first in a two-part se­ries ex­plor­ing the theft of scrap metal in New­ton County. For part two, see the Sun­day edi­tion of the Cov­ing­ton News.

When metal thieves come in the mid­dle of the night to gut a house of its cop­per, the dam­age they cause can cost hun­dreds of times more than the worth of the metal they’ve stolen.

New­ton County home builder RJ Mad­den is all too familiar with this frus­trat­ing re­al­ity.

In this past week, thieves caused dam­age es­ti­mated at more than $10,000 to three of Mad­den’s homes.

“It’s hor­ri­ble,” he said. He de­scribed how the per­pe­tra­tors had taken or gut­ted the air con­di­tion­ing and heater units, stripped the cop­per wiring from the walls, taken the toi­lets and shot an ar­row through the wall for good mea­sure. “It seemed sense­less,” he said. “How can peo­ple be do­ing this dam­age for such a neg­li­gi­ble amount of cop­per?”

In the past six months, Mad­den, who has con­struc­tion go­ing on in seven sub­di­vi­sions mostly in the county, has been hit with $ 40,000 in dam­ages.

Home own­ers and builders like Mad­den have faced a steady bar­rage of such thefts as the price of scrap met­als such as cop­per have risen in the last sev­eral years in a scrap met­als mar­ket heated by the vo­ra­cious de­mand of de­vel­op­ing na­tions.

The re­cent down­turn in the hous­ing mar­ket and the econ­omy may have less­ened the U. S. de­mand for scrap metal slightly, but it has also cre­ated more sit­u­a­tions where peo­ple would con­sider steal­ing. The slow hous­ing mar­ket also means more op­por­tu­ni­ties for thieves as new homes sit va­cant longer and fore­closed homes are left un­oc­cu­pied.

Builder Alan Free­man has been hit three times since Thanks­giv­ing, with one of his homes be­ing hit twice. “ They prob­a­bly didn’t get $ 10 for it at the re­cy­cle cen­ter,” he said. “ I would rather give them the cash and tell them to go their way than to take my stuff.”

The to­tal cost of such dam­ages in the state and coun­try is hard to track, and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies are re­luc­tant to share fig­ures on such claims. Zurich In­sur­ance, which un­der­writes builder’s risk in­sur­ance among its in­sur­ance prod­ucts, was not will­ing to give out the num­bers of claims from metal losses.

Even though most builders have in­sur­ance, many builders, es­pe­cially smaller busi­nesses, will of­ten just fix the dam­age and just take the ex­pense out of pocket, said An­drea Ham­mond, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of the New­ton County Home Builder’s As­so­ci­a­tion.

Mad­den said the in­di­vid­ual home dam­ages did not ex­ceed the de­ductible for his in­sur­ance to kick in. He was also wary of the pre­mium in­creas­ing if he did file a claim.

Por­terdale home owner Tami Moody was build­ing her new house when thieves caused $ 1,700 of dam­age steal­ing metal. She thought she would be cov­ered by the builder’s risk in­sur­ance only to find out it only cov­ered van­dal­ism and not theft.

Builder Steve DuBois has taken the ex­tra step of ran­domly pa­trolling his de­vel­op­ments at night, even stay­ing overnight in them.

“ No­body knows which nights I’m there and at which hours,” said the ded­i­cated small busi­ness owner. “ I’ll cam­ou­flage and hide my ve­hi­cle.” He said he caught two peo­ple in a Wal­ton County de­vel­op­ment dur­ing his pa­trols.

A re­cent change in state laws al­lowed him to claim resti­tu­tion of the to­tal cost of the dam­age, not just the cost of the met­als, from an­other per­son that was caught and con­victed of theft in Wal­ton County.

In the past cou­ple years, the Cov­ing­ton Po­lice De­part­ment has been en­forc­ing the state laws reg­u­lat­ing the op­er­a­tion of metal re­cy­clers more strictly, al­low­ing New­ton County law en­force­ment to suc­cess­fully make ar­rests and solve cases, said Cov­ing­ton De­tec­tive Daniel Seals.

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