by: Craig Lucie Updated:
Copper thieves are now targeting metro Atlanta highways, knocking out major street lights and costing taxpayers thousands.
Officials with the company that supplies wires to Georgia’s Department of Transportation said they have never seen a crime this size or this bold before. The thieves are ripping out the wires that power the highway lights, and in the most recent case, they stole $250,000 worth of copper wire.
“What they do is get behind the wall where they can’t be seen. These are junction boxes. They pull the box lids,” said Andy O’Kelley with Brooks-Berry-Haynie.
The company installs the wire and lights for the DOT. O’Kelley said once the lid is off, the thieves start cutting the copper wire.
“There may be a number of guys, because it is very heavy. Now, they are getting more bold and actually going into the installation and pulling it out. These circuits are 480-volt circuits, and 120 volts or less could kill a person. Somebody knows what they are doing without getting killed,” O’Kelley said.
It’s hard work that is worth it for the group behind the crimes, because the wire is worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s going to cost $250,000 to replace it. They got a little over 100,000 feet,” said O’Kelley.
That’s nearly 20 miles of wire that powers the light poles along Interstate 75 in Clayton County. O’Kelley said lights are out along interstates 20 and 285 as well after thieves took thousands of feet of wire.
“You see it all over Atlanta. There’s lots of lights out, and the majority of it is because wires are missing, not because light bulbs are out,” O’Kelley said.
O’Kelley said these professionals work through the night, and before they start any job, they go straight for the circuit box so they don’t electrocute themselves.
“They will open the pole, take a rock, throw a rock and short out the wires,” explained O’Kelley.
Channel 2’s Craig Lucie went to a scrap metal yard to find out what they are doing to cut down on these types of crimes. Metal Topbuy in Lake City said they have strict rules and laws they follow.
“We ask them for their ID and get a tag number and everything. If it’s a small amount of copper, we have to verify where it’s from,” said Jose Rodriguez at Metal Topbuy.
Rodriguez said any time sellers arrive with more than 20 pounds, Metal Topbuy will notify law enforcement if the customer cannot provide receipts. He said they are very careful when people wanting to sell copper come by, which he said is not as often as many think.
Lucie asked who would buy $250,000 dollars’ worth of copper wire, but Rodriguez said he didn’t have a clue. O’Kelley said the wire could sell on the black market for $20,000 or more.
“We won’t buy it. I don’t think anyone will buy it,” Rodriguez told Lucie.
O’Kelley said it’s hard to prevent the copper thieves along highways since they hide behind the large walls that line interstates near major intersections.
“It’s hard to combat these guys because you can’t be out here 24/7. It’s a huge insurance claim for us,” O’Kelley said.
His company’s insurance has to cover this crime in Clayton County because the lights are new, and they hadn’t turned them over to the DOT yet. In the other cases, taxpayers are the ones who ultimately foot the bill.