The FBI calls thieves who steal copper wiring a threat to U.S. critical infrastructure. They exploit demands overseas and target everything from railroads to homes. Now the crooks are coming out in force, hitting at least five sites in five days in Renton.
On Saturday before 10 a.m., officers responded to a construction site near the 300 block of Edmonds Avenue Southeast after reports of two men apparently taking copper cable from a Puget Sound Energy work site. When officers got to the scene, they found a 64-year-old Ravensdale man and a 56-year-old Kent man pulling on a rope hooked to a copper power cable. The cable had been cut in between power towers and was hung up in a tree. A 39-year-old Auburn man was seen in a tree wearing a climbing harness and carrying a cordless saw. Police said all three men were arrested on suspicion of first-degree attempted theft.
On the same day after 2 p.m., officers responded to the 2900 block of Southeast Royal Hills Drive for a theft in progress. This was the same Puget Sound Energy power line system that crosses the Cedar River, just north of this location and continues towards Covington. Investigators said a person called 911 after seeing two men stealing copper cable near Beacon Way Southeast.
When officers arrived, they saw a red truck and contacted two men, a 53-year-old SeaTac man and a 46-year-old Burien man, with equipment at the scene. According to police, the men had cut six copper cables free and pulled one of the cables free from a tree with a rope. Officers interviewed one of them men, who was later released and the other one was arrested on a Department of Corrections warrant. They both face charges of second-degree theft.
On Sunday morning, officers responded to the same area after a person called 911 about a group of people and cars seen parked on an access road. Two of the cars left before police arrived, but the people had climbing equipment and tools in their cars. They were all identified and then released.
Early Monday morning, officers responded to the Brighton Ridge apartments after a person called to report a man using a saw on power lines. When police arrived, they saw a 44-year-old Seattle man about 75 feet up a power line tower. Investigators said the man tried to conceal a portable bandsaw by leaving it hanging up the tower, which was later retrieved by a utility crew. The man was booked for theft.
On Tuesday morning, a Liberty Ridge resident called 911 after seeing a suspicious car in the area of Southeast Third Street and Edmonds Avenue Northeast, near the site from Saturday’s arrests. When officers contacted the driver, they saw cordless saws and climbing harnesses inside the car. Police said they were unable to develop Probable Cause to arrest for any immediate offense but arrested the driver on a felony warrant arising from a weapons charge.
Puget Sound Energy said the crooks are targeting outdated transmission corridors in Renton. Officials explained the power lines are retired and not energized. The copper inside them is why contracted crews are racing to remove them before thieves do.
"We’ve been working 12-18 hour days trying to get all of this stuff on the ground. And as fast as we can get it on the ground, they’re on the other job doing the same thing," said Matt Totten, line crew foremen with Potelco, Inc., contracted by PSE.
Police said the price for the metal wire has soared. So, criminals are going to extreme lengths to get their hands on it.
"The stuff we’re wrecking out is almost three pounds a foot. So, a foot of wire makes it 15 bucks, and these spans are averaging about 500 feet. So, do that and then there’s six phases up there, so you multiply by five and multiply that by six you’re looking at almost $36,000 from this tower to that tower," explained Totten.
In most cases, thieves are climbing towers as high as 75 feet by hand and foot with nothing but a saws-all.
"Once they get up there, most of them have no safety gear, no nothing. So they’re just hanging on while they’re trying to cut wire which is crazy," said Totten.
PSE said it’s a safety hazard for not only the thieves, but for the crews due to equipment and structural damage. In a statement, officials wrote, "We’ve taken proactive steps to prevent theft and ensure safety such as hiring security, making sure gates/fences around equipment on the ground are secure and high voltage signs are posted. Although the lines are not energized, the damage compromises the safety of our structures and puts our crews working on these structures at risk."
Police said if anyone who lives near power lines and sees something suspicious to call 911.
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