Metal thefts bring renewed scrutiny

Sheriff's Investigator Kendall Brown can legally question anyone waiting in line to recycle their metal.
But on a recent morning Brown was biding his time, patiently scanning the scrapyard crowd through the tinted windows of his silver Impala.
"You have to read the person, watch what people are loading," said Brown, who coordinates the newly resurrected CSRA Metal Theft Task Force. The task force is a holdover from 2008, when a spike in theft followed a jump in the prices of precious metals.
More than 20 law enforcement agencies and civilian businesses have joined forces to share their information on what's been stolen and who's responsible. Richmond County is the hub of the task force because of its six scrapyards; by default, almost all the stolen goods eventually trickle through here.
Brown was on the task force in 2008 and brings that experience back to the table as the only investigator devoted solely to metal thefts. Which comes in handy this morning as he watches the sea of people rolling into the scrapyard.
On an average day, he easily makes two or three arrests.
"It's like fishing with dynamite," he said.
Two young men have caught his eye. They're carrying long copper pipes so new they gleam in the hot sun. One is  wearing flip-flops in contrast to the construction boots worn by most contractors filing through. Something doesn't add up.
Brown steps out of the car, his gold star loosely dangling from a chain around his neck. They talk, Brown motioning to the copper at their feet, one of the young men making and unmaking a nervous fist. Brown walks over to the teen's small black pickup, searches it. The handcuffs come out.
Brown said the suspect lied for an hour about where the copper came from, but Brown eventually sussed out that he stole it off of his dad's work truck. The plumbing company was still deciding whether to press charges, but in the meantime he would headed to jail on possible charges of obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct.
If the copper they brought to the yard had been accepted, it would probably have been crushed and baled by the end of the day. Augusta's scrapyards work with tremendous volumes; contractors sometimes brings 2,000 pounds at time, Brown said.
That means any physical evidence of stolen property is usually gone before investigators get their hands on it. Instead they rely on the extensive records kept by the scrapyards, detailing what was brought in, the name and the address on the driver's license and what vehicle they were driving. There's no denying that on a specific day you were in possession of stolen property, Brown said.
Other times Brown questions someone about their goods, but there's no proof that they're stolen. Within a few days, though, a report comes in from another county about a theft that matches the description Brown has recorded. The so-called "information pipeline" generated by the task force is contributing to closed-cases across the CSRA, Brown said.
He credits the "proactive versus reactive" approach for the success.
"We've been very successful in the past couple of weeks because criminals are not expecting law enforcement to show up at the scrapyard or at their job," Brown said. "On the same day they sold items, we put them in handcuffs."



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