ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) — They were married with kids — six men who held down decent jobs, until co-workers wondered how they could afford fancy trips, new vehicles and the latest riding lawn mowers.
The six are now charged with taking part in an elaborate copper-theft ring, targeting an East Alton, Illinois industrial plant that reports $7 million in missing copper over a three-year period.
“Most of them were reported to be living way above their means,” said East Alton Police Major Brian Archer, “Large trips, lots of vehicles, motorcycles, expensive lawn mowers and different types of things.”
The ambitious gang is just the latest example of a nationwide epidemic of copper thieves stripping away gutters, air conditioner coils, plumbing and catalytic converters — anything made of copper — to resell for $3 or more a pound to a copper-hungry world.
Working in plain sight, the East Alton copper gang sneaked copper past co-workers at the Olin Brass Plant by throwing it in the trash.
The accused inside man, Tim Fee, was allegedly caught loading $40,000 worth of copper into an Allied Waste truck driven by another suspect, Sonny Carter.
The trash truck driver’s brother Ricky Carter — and alleged accomplices Larry Thompson, Shane Reese, and Dave Whitman — worked off site. They reportedly chopped up the copper into resalable chunks, then sold it at scrap yards.
Police say this was a sophisticated operation with a ringleader who ran the show.
“The ringleader carefully pieced certain people with other people and didn’t allow them to know everything that was going on in the operation,” Archer said, “It was almost like a cell operation. I don’t believe every single person knew every other person.”
Most of the payments were made in cash. And that’s made the case more difficult to put together. So far, police say they have receipts and other evidence linking the men to “several hundred-thousand dollars worth of copper thefts.”
Archer declined to identify the ringleader.
Meanwhile, across the Mississippi, in St. Louis where thieves stole an estimated $4.7 million dollars worth of copper last year, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen is drafting a regional bill to prevent such thefts.
Alderman Donna Baringer’s bill would require all copper buys to be paid by check, and all scrap metal dealers to keep computerized records. The plan would have to be adopted in St. Louis city and then by surrounding county boards.
If such a law had been in place, Major Archer says the East Alton copper gang might have been caught much sooner.
“It does seem like that would be a great help if we had some way of monitoring everything coming in and requiring identification ,” Archer said.
Archer also faults scrap buyers for the three-year long theft at Olin Brass. “If the scrap buyers were watching more for it, rather than just doing business as usual and not questioning a lot of things, I think it would’ve been caught a lot sooner.”
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