Eight suspects arrested for copper theft

By DeeAnna Haney | Sep 28, 2011
Corey Baxley

Copper has become a hot commodity for thieves this year, with Haywood County law enforcement dealing with 20 instances since January.

Detectives have arrested eight people accused of stealing copper from telephone poles — a felony offense.

Lisa Ann James, 33, Richard James King, 42, Luke Geoffrey Gibson, 29, Brandon Lee Gibson, 34, Alvin Drew Burrell, 26, Michael Ray Hurst, 55, George Cory Baxley, 40 and Jeffrey Clinton Burrel were indicted by a Haywood County Grand Jury Sept. 19. They were charged with felony larceny, felony possession of stolen goods, conspiracy and interfering with phone communications.

“Baxley and Hurst were indicted on some previous charges of copper theft that stemmed from a larceny back in May,” said Det. Tony Cope of the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office.

In August, Burrell and Natasha Franks were arrested and accused of stealing copper from telephone poles at the intersection of Fines Creek and Max Patch roads.

The sheriff’s office learned that copper wire had been sold to a salvage yard in McDowell County.

“Throughout the investigation we learned of several other instances that these folks were involved in which led to the indictments,” Cope said.

All the suspects are from Haywood County.

Stealing copper is a tedious and dangerous process involving climbing the telephone pole, cutting the wire, hauling it away and melting it down, Cope said. Then, raw copper is sold to salvage yards.

While the sale price of stolen copper might high, there are risks other than getting arrested.

"The wires often have a high degree of tension, and when they are cut there is the potential for a pole to snap or break.  In addition, our lines usually co-exist with electric wires. If a thief comes in contact with the wrong wire, the results could be tragic," said Josh Gelinas, a spokesman for AT&T.

Copper is currently valued at about $3.71 per pound. The thefts have caused about $200,000 worth of damage in materials for AT&T statewide, which in turn will eventually effect customers, Cope said.

Most of these incidents happen in remote locations in the early morning hours, he said.

Although AT&T is still working with law enforcement to find out how many people were left without power, Cope said the lack of phone service is one of the main concerns with the Fines Creek case.

“One of our big concerns was the interference with emergency communications. If sick or elderly people had to dial 911, they couldn’t because there is no cell service there,” Cope said.

He said AT&T is not automatically alerted when service goes out as a result of people tampering with wire and usually does not know about the outage until customers inform them.

"AT&T appreciates the hard work by law enforcement and the recent arrest of individuals suspected of stealing copper," Gelinas said.

All suspects were still in jail as of press time with secured bonds ranging from $3,000 to $79,000.

So far this year, copper has been stolen from more than 20 AT&T sites in Buncombe County and more than 15 in Haywood County, said Gelinas.

Cope said the investigation is ongoing to see if the suspects are involved in other wire thefts in surrounding counties.