Thieves cut phone wires for copper
Copper telephone wire theft has made a resurgence recently as detectives investigate three cases that have caused more than $50,000 in damages across the county.
The Haywood County Sheriff's Office made dozens of arrests related to copper theft in 2011, a time when copper seemed to be a hot commodity. Since those arrests were made, copper theft crimes decreased dramatically — until now.
In late October, detectives began investigating the first copper theft case in several months, which occurred off Hyder Mountain Road in Clyde.
It was clear that someone scaled a telephone pole and cut one of the wires, taking about 300 feet of wiring, said Det. Scott Robinson. Each foot of wire yields about 2.5 pounds, which has a resale value of $3.30 a pound, he explained.
Stealing copper is a tedious and dangerous process that requires the criminal to climb the telephone pole, cut the wire, haul it away and melt parts of it down to extract the copper. Then, they sell the raw copper.
Through investigation, detectives learned the suspect told other people about cutting the wire and then used them to help him transport and sell the copper to salvage yards.
"Sometimes these criminals involve innocent parties who don't realize they are getting involved in criminal behavior," Robinson said.
But because several people were involved, the case evolved into a conspiracy.
So far, authorities have arrested Sara Kent, 20, of Canton; Steven Charles Allred, 43, of Canton; Leiha Boyer, 31, of Clyde; Ricky Hill, 26, of Canton; and Ryan Green, 30, of Clyde for charges of larceny, possession of stolen property and injuring utility wires — all felonies.
Det. John Ryan began investigating a second case at the end of December after a Canton resident reported seeing a man dragging telephone cable near England Drive off Filter Plant Road.
The suspects had cut a guide wire, which caused the telephone pole to snap and fall. They then cut the wiring in small pieces and drug away what they could, making away with about 264 feet of telephone wire, Ryan said.
Ryan was able to identify the suspects after working with salvage yards in Buncombe County and taking eye witness statements.
"We were able to get fresh leads with the help of the public acting on what they saw and calling us," Ryan said.
Three people have already been arrested in the Canton case, with more charges and arrests forthcoming.
So far, Kevin Gibson, 28, of Clyde has been arrested and charged with felony larceny, possession of stolen property and injuring utility wires in connection with the case. Gwendolyn Wikes Burnette, 43, of Clyde; and Clifford Lowell Lance, 33, of Canton have also been arrested and charged with possession of stolen property.
Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher thanked the public for their involvement in the case, which may have been difficult to solve otherwise.
"Our citizens were a key element in solving this case. We're very grateful for the partnership we share with the people we serve," he said.
As recent as this week, detectives received information about another telephone wire theft in Canton.
"It doesn't matter what metal it is — copper, aluminum — when the prices go high for that item in scrap, then you're going to see people stealing it," Robinson said.
While the sale price of metals might be high, there are risks other than getting arrested if utility lines are the target.
"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.
Detectives aren't sure how many, if any, people were left without phone service after thieves cut the lines in these cases. But there is a more serious risk involved in these cases, said Robinson.
"What if someone cut the phone lines of an elderly person and they needed EMS and they weren't able to reach 9-1-1 on their phone line? It could potentially lead to a death, which is serious business," he said.
Investigations in these cases are ongoing and additional charges are pending. Detectives urge anyone with information about any of the cases to call the sheriff's office at 828-452-6669. Tips may be made anonymously.