|Mining cities for materials: What do a grieving family in Syracuse, the streets of Cortland and a graveyard in Canastota have in common?|
Each are a victim of metal thieves, who have become increasingly brazen in Central New York. Within the past year, thieves have stolen a fire hydrant, a marker commemorating the founding of the Onondaga County Republican Party and a $33,000 stainless steel rail intended for Cornell University.
The range of victims has expanded as metal prices rise with a building boom in China and India. An industrial revolution in those countries, which account for more than a third of the world's population, is fueling the global need for scrap metal.
That worldwide demand has had a direct and personal impact on Central New Yorkers.
Days after burying Lottie Birchmeyer after she died in a March fire, her sons discovered copper pipe ripped out of their 89-year-old mother's fire-ravaged house on Carbon Street.
"People think because there's a fire and no one's living there anymore, it won't make any difference," said her son, Paul Birchmeyer. "It's crazy."
In Cortland, the theft of 19 cast-iron storm drains last month left gaping, 4-foot holes in city streets. Two men were charged after the grates were recovered in a Broome County scrap yard.
"It's pretty stupid," Cortland Police Lt. Paul Sandy said. "We had witnesses see them in broad daylight put the grates into the back of a pickup truck. It wasn't the most well thought-out operation in the world. And it created a huge public risk."
Even the dead aren't protected from metal scavengers. Roughly 50 bronze grave markers some dating to Revolutionary War veterans were wrenched from poured concrete in February at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Canastota.
"It's very difficult to replace them," said Alan Galster, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial Post 600, in Canastota. He oversees honors for fallen veterans at the cemetery. "They are just replacing them with plastic ones."
alster said replacing each marker with bronze would have cost $31, or more than $1,500 total. Police told Galster the markers given they were so old had a scrap value of $180. He wonders how anyone can assign a value to a marker honoring a veteran.
"It gets pretty personal," Galster said. "How can you depreciate a grave marker? These are people who fought for this country. My grief goes out to the families who have to revisit the deaths of their loved ones."
Syracuse police charged a Sullivan man, Christopher Strauss, 19, with the thefts. The grave markers were recovered from a scrap yard, but held by police as evidence.
Thefts will continue as demand for metal skyrockets, a Syracuse University economist said.
"There's a huge, worldwide construction boom China, India, Europe, even Washington, D.C.," said Michael Wasylenko, senior associate dean of SU's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
The building frenzy is driving up the costs of steel, copper, iron and other metals, he said. The economies in China and India, with 2.4 billion of the world's 6.6 billion people, have roughly doubled in the last decade, Wasylenko said. In the same period, the U.S. economy has grown about 25 percent.
The demand for shopping malls, factories, hotels and office buildings in Asia has exceeded supply, he said. And it's less expensive to recycle scrap than mine new metal.
A weak U.S. economy is also driving up prices, as people invest in precious metals, Wasylenko said.
"Demand is part of it, but there's also speculation out there," he said.
In the past three years, the price of copper has jumped from $1.50 a pound to $3.78 a pound, according to the New York Mercantile Exchange. In the past year, it's gone up nearly 50 cents a pound. Onondaga County has averaged more than a copper theft every other day since thefts spiked in 2005.
What can be done?
There isn't any surefire solution to crack down on metal thefts, authorities said.
"Metal's everywhere," said Sgt. Tom Connellan, of the Syracuse Police. "They're stealing grave markers. They're going into vacant homes. The biggest thing is, if the public sees something suspicious, they need to call us."
Onondaga County sheriff's Detective Bob Pitman tries to dedicate four hours a week to leading "Operation Copperhead," a task force that patrols scrap yards for suspicious metal. Members include Syracuse police; sheriff's offices in Onondaga, Oswego, Cayuga, Madison and Oneida counties; state police; and security from National Grid.
Pitman said there's not enough time to investigate every burglary to the extent required to make an arrest.
At scrap yards, Pitman often sees young people on bicycles carrying garbage bags filled will shiny copper pipe.
"You know it's stolen," he said. "But no one in their right mind will tell you where it's coming from."
Two Syracuse police detectives work four hours a week to monitor scrap yards and investigate metal thefts.
"We're putting a dent in the problem," said Syracuse Detective Dick Morris.
All we can do is inconvenience the thieves. If we get lucky, we catch one."
Detective Joe White said they've encountered everything from junked cars to airplane wings.
Without being able to prove where the metal originated, it's difficult to arrest anyone, Connellan said.
"The guys who are stealing it, for the most part, are not the ones taking it to the scrap yard," he said. "They'll sell it to a middleman, who will tell us, 'I found it.' "
About 10 detectives in the sheriff's office are assigned to investigate all burglaries and robberies, Pitman said.
Crimes against people come first, like robberies, murders and assaults, detectives said.
There were 166 copper thefts in Syracuse from April 1, 2007 to April 20, 2008. Of those, 111 were at vacant properties. Eight people were arrested for copper thefts during that time.
In the same period the year before, there were 188 copper thefts in the city and 140 for the year before, according to city records.
Syracuse police have made 15 to 20 arrests for metal thefts since the beginning of the year, detectives said. Some of those arrests including the graveyard thief from Canastota closed investigations outside the city.
Across Onondaga County, there have been 234 copper, 75 aluminum and 47 steel burglaries in the past year, according to sheriff's office records
The state helped authorities earlier this year by passing a law that requires scrap yards to see photo identification from scrappers selling more than $50 worth of metal.
Pitman said the new law helped nab a burglar who stole a custom-built $33,000 stainless steel rail made for Cornell University.
After the burglary, Pitman called around to the seven scrap yards in the county. One yard told him it bought the rail, cut into small pieces, for roughly $500. Their records led deputies on Jan. 3 to arrest Robert Dischiave, 30, of Syracuse, and charge him with felony criminal possession of stolen property, said Sgt. John D'Eredita.
"It's like linking up a jigsaw puzzle," Pitman said. "It is time-consuming."
In December, mechanic Michael Ciaramella found three catalytic converters had been cut off vehicles in his Riegel Street lot in Syracuse.
It takes 20 seconds to cut off a metal-laden converter with a cordless saw, Ciaramella said. Some fetch up to $1,000 on the black market.
"They're better than candy," Ciaramella said. "And hotter than gold."
Rich in platinum, aluminum, silicon and other metals, catalytic converters are among the latest targets for metal thieves, police said. Syracuse police have tracked at least 28 catalytic converters stolen in a dozen thefts in the past year.
"What can you do?" Ciaramella asked. "Live in your shop and try to catch them in the act, or do drive-bys and hope you see something? I'm not going to live here."
His insurance policy only covers damage caused inside the shop, he said. Cars ripped off in the parking lot are the owner's responsibility.
That wouldn't help LaMacchia Honda on West Genesee Street, where 13 catalytic converters were stolen off Honda Pilots in December. Each converter was worth $1,300, police said.
Owner Anthony LaMacchia declined comment. Police said dealerships fear coverage will lead to more catalytic converter thefts.
Burglars are stealing history, too. Near Onondaga County's Republican headquarters, under an elm tree, stood a bronze plaque for almost a century. It commemorated the Onondaga County party's founding in 1854, said Republican County Chairman John DeSpirito.
Last July, the plaque was wrenched from its granite base by thieves. As with the Madison County graveyard, the Republicans will replace the stolen marker with a synthetic one.
"Thank God we've got pictures," DeSpirito said. "It's just sad. It's been here since 1910, and then some idiot steals it for $10."
Douglass Dowty can be reached at 470-6070 or firstname.lastname@example.org.