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Judge gets tough on copper thieves; Any guilty plea would lead to jail

Another Niagara County judge has declared war on copper thieves.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. said in court this week that any defendant before him who pleads guilty in a copper theft must go to jail.

Kloch unveiled his new policy Thursday during the arraignment of a Buffalo man accused of stealing copper pipes Sept. 22 from the former Heritage Manor Nursing Home on Buffalo Avenue in Niagara Falls.

Charles G. Delano, 26, of Northrup Place, pleaded not guilty to third-degree burglary, fourth-degree criminal mischief and petit larceny.

"You should know that on copper thefts, I'm not taking any plea without incarceration," Kloch told Delano.

Friday, Kloch repeated his views to a man who was arrested in January and accused of stealing large metal objects from the Summit, a Wheatfield mall.

Patrick J. Dugan, 28, of Walmore Road, Wheatfield, got the word when he asked to be admitted to "judicial diversion," a court-supervised drug treatment program, in exchange for a guilty plea in the theft of wiring, pipes, heating and ventilation equipment from the mall.

"I can't put somebody in diversion who's incarcerated," Kloch told him.

Delano's attorney, Anthony J. Lana, had asked for diversion for his client, too. Delano is due back in court May 16.

Kloch said he decided on the policy while he was on vacation last week, but it wasn't sudden.

On April 3, he mused from the bench, "It really hit home to me when I was driving through Niagara Falls and I saw an obviously vacant house spray-painted [with the words], 'No copper.' "

Kloch isn't the first Niagara County judge to announce a crackdown on copper capers.

On Dec. 16, County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas declared, "A couple of years ago, we had a rash of copper burglaries, and I sent everybody to prison, and it stopped for a while. Now here it is again. I'm not going to tolerate it."

Farkas will have a chance to make good on that June 14, when she sentences Eric S. Waterstram, the Niagara Falls man who confessed to stealing copper pipes carrying natural gas from the basement of a home on Military Road in the Town of Niagara last summer.

The resulting gas buildup triggered an explosion the next day that obliterated the house and knocked a nearby business off its foundation.

"These copper thieves should be going to jail," Kloch said during Delano's arraignment. "It seems like every other case I get is copper thefts. There's not going to be any city left."

Two of Delano's co-defendants in the Heritage Manor case have pleaded guilty in Niagara Falls City Court and are awaiting sentencing by Judge Angelo J. Morinello.

Christopher H. Lee, 39, of Manitoba Street, Buffalo, admitted to attempted third-degree burglary, while Steven J. Herby, 31, of Oneida Street, Buffalo, pleaded guilty to petit larceny.

By an unofficial count, Delano and Dugan are the fourth and fifth defendants to appear before Kloch on Niagara Falls-area copper theft charges this year.

Assistant District Attorney Joseph A. Scalzo said Dugan would have to agree to pay $25,000 in restitution to the mall if he pleads guilty.

Scalzo said Dugan's co-defendant, Anthony C. Lopiccolo, 42, of Colvin Boulevard, Wheatfield, is expected to plead guilty shortly in the Summit mall case.

"For the sake of a few dollars' worth of copper, $25,000 damage was done," Kloch said. "I just have a feeling these copper thefts have to be stopped somehow."