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Havoc for a pretty penny Scrap burglaries leaving a lot of ruin in their wake

Sometimes, a theft isn't nearly so costly as the damage done.

Take copper theft, for instance.

When thieves tore apart four exterior air-conditioning units that cool Lockport's Historic Palace Theatre a little more than a week ago, they got away with an estimated 200 pounds of copper valued at about $600. The damage to the Palace was $20,000.

A thief awoke Judith L. Degree at about 3 a.m. Feb. 8 as he tried to steal copper from her home on the 200 block of East Delavan Avenue. She was able to fight him off before he could take anything, but she suffered an injured right hand in the struggle and lost her sense of security.

And last July, thieves stole about $100 in copper pipes from an unoccupied Town of Niagara house. A day later, after the house filled up with natural gas because of the theft, it blew up and damaged several nearby buildings. The blast caused $150,000 damage.

"The damage these thieves cause is exponential," Niagara County Sheriff James C. Voutour said of the high price tag that crooks leave in their wake and also the intangible "collateral damage."

Chalk it up to the worldwide demand for copper, particularly in China, and the high price that it fetches per pound.

Scrap copper used to bring in under $2 per pound back in early 2009, but these days, the price can go as high as about $3.80 a pound for top quality. At one point a year ago, copper was selling at $4.50 a pound.

With these elevated prices, crooks have a strong incentive to go scavenging for copper, according to police.

"It's a crime that attacks the core of our communities by thieves stealing copper plumbing and wiring out of vacant buildings, many of which could be rehabilitated and probably would have been," said Niagara Falls Police Capt. William M. Thomson, chief of detectives. "The devastation can be shocking."

Since the start of 2012, Thomson says, thieves have looted copper from 10 buildings in Niagara Falls.

More than four times as many copper thefts have occurred in the same period in Buffalo, with thieves tearing apart walls and floors to get at copper piping and electrical wiring.

A few weeks ago in Buffalo, a thief raided National Grid's substation on Bailey Avenue. He managed to get a large coil of copper wire into the back of a waiting sport utility vehicle but didn't get far. Cops caught him on Clinton Street with the copper and a crack pipe.

Even three large copper flower planters outside a church on Genesee Street were grabbed by crooks three weeks ago.

But it is not only the high price of copper that feeds the thievery, police say.

"There are some unscrupulous scrap dealers who are part of the problem," Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said. "They will pay less than the going price and, in exchange, give thieves a place to sell their stolen goods."

In the high-profile theft of copper at the Palace Theatre, the thieves were determined not to leave empty-handed.

They entered a narrow alley between the theater and another building on East Avenue, most likely under the cover of night Feb. 18-19, and tried to remove each of the 300-pound air-conditioning units, which were bolted to the pavement.

When that failed, they hacked apart the external metal shells covering the condensers and cut away the copper piping, according to Christopher Parada, executive director of the Palace.

"This was something where these guys knew exactly what they were doing. They had the proper cutting tools or blowtorches," Parada said. "It's bad. It's not something the theater can afford. We give so much back to the community, and then someone does this to us."

Parada and community groups are now spearheading a fund drive to raise $10,000, the amount that insurance is not expected to cover in replacing the destroyed air-conditioning units.

Identifying stolen scrap is not easy, according to Bob Felton, general manager of Diamond Hurwitz Scrap Specialists in the city's Clinton-Bailey-William section, where several other scrap yards are located.

"If anything looks suspicious, we ask, but if they are dishonest, they're not going to give an honest answer," Felton said of those who bring scrap to the yard. "We get calls all the time asking if we see something come in to 'give us a call.' We help police and business owners. We hate theft as much as anyone else, and we follow state law and ask for identification when buying scrap from peddlers."

Cooper theft has been going on for years, another scrap yard manager said.

"When I started in this business years ago, and copper was selling for 60 cents a pound, there were people stealing it then at that price," the manager said.

But with the economy continuing to struggle, Felton said, more people will resort to thievery to try to make money.

"You are going to see more people who are desperate. They can't afford to put fuel in their tank," he said. "For the most part, though, scrap peddlers are honest. They get their scrap from picking through garbage."

Anthony Marinaro, of Buffalo, says he is one such dealer. Walking out of the Diamond Hurwitz scrap yard on his way to his van, which ran out of gas a couple of miles away earlier this week, he had $20 in hand from selling some of the scrap that he had collected.

"I break my back all day and maybe get $60, and that is minus the $25 in gasoline I burn driving around neighborhoods going through garbage," he said.

"Copper, aluminum, cast iron can be found in discarded televisions, lawn mowers, refrigerators and other appliances that are set outside," Marinaro said. "I will knock on the people's doors to make sure it is being thrown away."

He pulled off his tattered gloves. "Look at the cracks in my fingers. It's hard work to strip out the metals," he said.

A former bridge painter and scaffold rigger now on Supplemental Security Income, Marinaro said he earned more than $50 per hour with his benefits before he suffered career-ending neck injuries. "I never dreamed I'd be picking scrap," he said. "I drive around in my van with my fiancee and my 81-year-old mother who has dementia and lives with me. My mom's happy to get out. She sings and I watch her."

After being given a lift to a gasoline station to fill up a gas container, he was taken to his beat-up minivan, which was missing a driver's side window and patched with a plastic bag and tape.

Inside the van was an assortment of scrap metal and his two companions, his fiancee, Sue, and his mother, who smiled when her son introduced her. "This is Lulu," he said, "short for Lucy."

Marinaro said he abhors those who steal metals. "We had an older woman die on our street, and the crooks broke in, and they cut out the floors of her home to get at the copper," he said. "I consider them bottom feeders." Yet he understands what could drive people to commit such crimes. "The majority of scrap thieves are people on drugs," he said, "and they steal to fill their addiction."

In January, Niagara County sheriff's deputies arrested two alleged heroin addicts for stealing more than $500,000 in copper and other metals from the Summit mall in Wheatfield.

Anthony C. Lopiccolo blamed his need for heroin and confessed to deputies, authorities said. "It calls to me; I would sell my soul [for it]," he told police.

As for the Town of Niagara house flattened in the July 19 explosion on the 3200 block of Military Road, Niagara County deputies arrested a man and a woman. Crystal D. Knepp recently took a plea deal and has agreed to testify against her co-defendant, Eric S. Waterstram.

At the Palace, Parada said donations to help replace the air-conditioning units can be sent by check to the Historic Palace Theatre, P.O. Box 19, Lockport, NY 14095 or can be dropped off at the theater, 2 East Ave.

Others have suffered, as well.

Last December, a Niagara County sheriff's K-9 dog, Rocky, fell 60 feet to his death while chasing suspected copper thieves at the long-abandoned St. Mary's Manor nursing home in Niagara Falls.

The loss still reverberates in the Sheriff's Office, Voutour said.

"The collateral damage was the emotional cost of losing a dog to its handler, Deputy Craig Beiter," Voutour said. "Then there's financial cost to replace the dog, around $7,000, and the training cost for the dog and handler, another $7,000."

email: lmichel@buffnews.com