Thefts of metal rise in step with surge in prices

Just east of Oceanside, a thief is killed in early March, electrocuted while trying to cut live power lines in order to steal a few dollars’ worth of copper.

JOHN GASTALDO / Union-Tribune 

In Fallbrook, a 6-foot bronze statue of a hawk valued at $16,000 is stolen in February from a private park and sold for scrap metal for $198.And more than 100 times since January 2007, power substations owned by San Diego Gas & Electric have been broken into and looted of grounding and transmission wiring. 

Homes and businesses, some under construction, have had plumbing fixtures and pipes ripped from the walls and floors. 

It goes on and on because prices for metals such as copper and bronze have risen dramatically in the past few years, spurred by demand in China and elsewhere in Asia

“Almost nothing is sacred,” said sheriff’s Lt. Alex Rodriguez, who heads the department’s Fallbrook station. “They’ll steal anything. Statues, memorial plaques, wire. It seems that people will go to great lengths to steal this metal.” 

The theft of copper wiring and other metals often by drug abusers looking for a quick buck, authorities say has been rising steadily not just here but across the country. 

Six years ago, those trying to sell used copper were getting about 75 cents per pound. Today, that price hovers around $3.50 per pound. 

Although legislation aimed at making metal recyclers more accountable was introduced last year in Sacramento, the bill died before getting to a vote. 

Under current law, scrap yard owners only have to ask if the material a seller comes in with is stolen. 

The bill introduced last year by Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, would have required junk-metal dealers and recyclers to pay sellers by check 10 days after the purchase of any metal, and to choose between obtaining a photograph of the seller and the metal or holding the metal for 15 days. 

Berryhill, whose constituents include farmers hard hit by metal thieves, said the provisions were designed to make metal theft less appealing to those who steal it to obtain quick cash. Berryhill said lobbyists for the recycling industry were able to defeat the bill. 

The incident east of Oceanside happened shortly after 1 a.m. March 6. Deputies were sent to check a report of a downed live power line along state Route 76 near Holly Lane in Bonsall. 

What they found were two cut power lines and the body of Dennis Ray Daniels, 50. One of the live lines was in contact with his body. A ladder sat next to two utility poles, and several tools were nearby. 

Officials believe Daniels and at least one other person had been cutting and removing the line for the copper inside. Because some of the cut line was missing and no vehicle was nearby, detectives believe at least one other person took off after Daniels was electrocuted. 

His death appears to have been the first of its sort in the county, but others have occurred across the United States.


Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for SDG&E, said theft of power-line wiring and break-ins at the company’s substations have cost the utility about $360,000 in direct costs since January 2007.


Repair costs greatly outweigh the value of the stolen wire, Laing said. More important, the thefts create a major safety hazard. In many cases, the stolen wire provides the grounding for the substations that have been burglarized. Utility workers could be electrocuted just entering their work site, she said.


Construction sites and utility companies aren’t the only targets. Sometimes it’s far more personal. 

In October, Madelynne Engle lost almost everything when the Rice Canyon fire burned into Fallbrook and took out her 2½-acre property. Engle’s house, her artist studio everything was torched. All that remained was her sculpture garden containing about 100 pieces she had created over many years. 

Sometime between when the fire burned through and when she was allowed back home, thieves stole two sculptures, a 600-pound one Engle called The Unicorn and a 200-pound one that resembled a ship’s sail. 

The fire was one thing, the crime was another. 

“It’s a very different feeling when it’s nature that causes a loss as opposed to when it’s humans who have deliberately violated something you’ve created or something you love,” Engle said. 

She said the theft reminded her of a line in a book about the Civil War that she had read. “A survivor had hidden in the woods and watched as thieves had come down the hill and stolen coins from the pockets of the dead.” 

Engle said she has called foundries and scrap-metal yards hoping to find the lost art, without luck.


Sheriff’s Detective Daniel Laibach said that after the October fires, many burned-out homes were pillaged for valuables, including copper piping. 

In February, a 6-foot bronze sculpture of a hawk, valued at $16,000, was stolen from Palomares House and Park off Stagecoach Lane in Fallbrook. 

Laibach found what was left of it at an Oceanside metal-recycling center. It had been cut into pieces, and Laibach had to have the artist identify them to confirm that they were from the sculpture. 

A receipt showed that a Riverside man named Shawn Salley had been paid $198 for 110 pounds of bronze. Salley, 38, was arrested April 1 by Temecula police when he was seen siphoning gasoline out of cars, officials said. After Riverside County completes its case against him, Salley faces charges in the theft of the hawk sculpture. 

The park in which it stood is owned by the Fallbrook Land Conservancy. Preserve manager Mike Peters said the theft is sad. 

“We’re looking into putting more security in,” Peters said. “There was a walkway through our property that kids would use to get to the school bus. We had to shut it down. We’re also thinking of putting lights in and possibly cameras. 

“It’s very discouraging, but it’s happening all over.” 

J. Harry Jones: (760) 737-7579;