Zander Wheeler raised suspicions when he stepped up to the window at Augusta Steel and Metal Recycling Center on Jan. 19 with a large amount of aluminum coils and copper tubing.
Workers immediately called Richmond County sheriff’s investigator Kendall Brown. Shortly thereafter, Wheeler was behind bars.
When metal prices began rising again in 2011, so did thefts. That’s why Brown is back on the job, reinstated as a metal theft investigator last June, making Richmond County the only law enforcement department in the state with such a position. Since his return, Brown has made 65 arrests.
“We make several arrests a day,” Brown said. “I probably talk to 100 to 150 people a week.”
Sheriff Ronnie Strength said that Brown’s work is cutting into the problem but that more needs to be done.
“There aren’t enough people working it,” he said, blaming the manpower shortage on budget constraints. “We should have at least three people working it.”
Brown’s position was originally created in 2008 but ended in 2010. When the number of metal thefts started rising in connection to higher metal prices Brown was called back.
“The prices are up now,” Strength said. “We don’t see that problem changing.”
The sheriff’s office does not keep statistics specifically on the number of metal-related thefts but looks to the number of arrests to determine success.
“Our reported thefts have gone way down since June,” he said.
That drop is attributed to the relationships Brown has created with employees of local scrap metal yards, with the Wheeler arrest a prime example. Wheeler, 19, is charged with four counts of criminal damage to property in the second degree for an estimated $45,000 to $50,000 in damage to six industrial-sized airconditioning units at the Henry R. Brigham Community Center.
Brown, who is also coordinator of the CSRA Metal Theft Task Force that includes 65 agencies, estimates he spends 65 percent of his day at Augusta’s five scrap metal yards and three junk car lots. Dressed in jeans and a jacket, he blends in with other sellers. But if he sees something suspicious, he whips out his badge and checks the seller’s ID.
After checking for a seller’s driver’s license status and if he has active warrants, he checks out the story. If the story is also suspicious, Brown photographs the items. Nine times out of 10, Brown said, he isn’t sure at the time if the items are indeed stolen but getting photo evidence helps him stay proactive instead of reactive.
“If something is sold at 9 in the morning, it can be gone before the day it over,” he said.
Churches, schools and other businesses that aren’t open daily are often targeted. Days later when the theft is finally reported, the evidence is already gone.
“You have to be out there with your boots on the ground to encounter these guys,” he said.
After less than a year of daily trips to the recycling centers, Brown said it’s obvious word is getting around that Augusta is cracking down on metal theft.