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Byline: Andrea Damewood The Register-Guard

They just keep coming, with no end in sight.

Despite a set of tougher laws passed by the 2007 Legislature, metal thieves, often fueled by the need to feed a methamphetamine addiction, are ravaging the state - one group estimates they did at least $4.5 million in damage in the first half of 2008 alone.

Hundreds of western Lane County residents lost phone service days before Christmas when someone stole 470 feet of Qwest phone line, doing $18,000 in damage in the process.

At least three bronze vases have gone missing from graves at Springfield Memorial Gardens since December, and a local metal recycler receives regular updates on missing headstone plaques sent to him by funeral homes.

In the dead of a November night, a 200- to 300-pound bronze statue vanished from the University of Oregon.

Already the consensus among lawmakers is that their work in 2007 simply wasn't enough.

The 2007 laws were aimed solely at scrap metal recyclers, requiring that they make a copy of a valid photo ID from all sellers, maintain video surveillance and keep a record of sales for one year.

Yet the thefts continue.

And with the 2009 session looming, a number of legislators and interest groups across Oregon are crafting bills that they hope will bring an end to stripped utility poles, plundered power substations and disappearing irrigation pipe.

Though theft has gone down recently as the price of metal has plummeted to less than half of its peak price at more than $3 a pound in the summer, those involved know that when the market rebounds, the epidemic will be renewed.

But solutions are difficult to find, and lawmakers are divided.

Some favor tougher criminal sanctions such as making all metal theft a felony, or ensuring repeat offenders are charged with aggravated criminal mischief, earning them serious prison time under Measure 57, passed by voters in November.

Critics however, note those steps could cost the state millions in a year that legislators will struggle to maintain current service.

Others want to see more restrictions imposed on metal recyclers and the way they do business, including a required reporting system and payments by check - a move recyclers say will drive criminals underground and hamper legitimate recycling.

Nearly all the proposed measures are largely untested.

"In 2009, there may be a lot of bills," said Jeff Stone, chairman of the Oregon Metal Theft Coalition, which championed the 2007 law and now is supporting harsher sentencing.

"I'm not speaking ill of any bill, because the commonality is that we want to try and fix the problem," said Stone, whose coalition includes Republicans and Democrats, representatives from law enforcement agencies, the construction industry, utilities and recyclers. "The big question is what bill is going to get legs and what bill will have broad support?"

Becoming a CSI detective

These days, being a metal recycler requires knowing much more than the going rate for copper or aluminum, said Chris Gerlitz, general manager of Schnitzer Steel.

The state's new laws - and a desire to not trade with criminals - mean the guy at the scales has to be a mind reader, with a little bit of CSI detective mixed in, he said.

"The No. 1 degree you can have right now is psychology," Gerlitz said with a laugh as he toured his facility Tuesday on Highway 99 in Eugene.

Along with an elaborate network of security cameras, a 2-inch binder packed with records and alerts on stolen metal, Schnitzer employees also question anyone whose motives - and metal - they find a little fishy.

Gerlitz said the recycling plant he oversees in Bend was the one to locate the destroyed remains of a bronze Sacagawea statue stolen from Fort Clatsop in January 2008. Four people were arrested in connection with the crime.

"I truly believe we're doing a public service," Gerlitz said.

And Gerlitz, along with many of the state's scrap metal recyclers, thinks that what they're doing is enough.

Others disagree: Ideas coming out of the governor's Methamphetamine Task Force - a group commissioned by Gov. Ted Kulongoski of politicians, nonprofit agencies and law enforcement officials - are almost universally focused on further clamping down at the point of sale.

The task force "deferred" to the Oregon Metal Theft Coalition in 2007 and the result was a law that is "weak and ineffective," said Rob Bovett, chairman of the task force and the district attorney-elect for Lincoln County.

This time around, the task force will bring its own agenda to the Legislature. Backers include state legislators Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a member of the task force, and Rep. Nancy Nathanson, both Eugene Democrats.

Bovett and the task force are calling for a mandatory reporting system between recyclers and local police, similar to that in the pawn shop industry.

Currently, police must visit scrap yards to search for records, Eugene police property crime Detective Johann Schneider said.

The city's four metal recyclers, including Schnitzer, share a good relationship with police, he said, but in order to be more effective, police need immediate access to records.

"They don't have the time to call me about every little thing," he said. "They don't see the theft reports that I see, and I don't see what's coming into their shop."

As with pawn shop records, Eugene police staff would be able to go through and match theft reports with inventory logs to catch thieves, he said.

"Mandatory reporting would be a huge help for law enforcement," Schneider said. "Everybody seems to be asking for it, so hopefully our legislators will hear that."

The meth task force also wants to bring Oregon's laws in line with the state of Washington's. Officials there have drafted laws requiring recyclers pay sellers with a check that is held for 10 days before being mailed to a physical address, not a post office box.

A 10-day wait removes the instant gratification of cash, while an actual address gives police another way of catching a suspected metal thief, Prozanski said.

Members of the task force acknowledge that there hasn't been time for any scientific study to see if payments by check through the mail are working. But anecdotes from Washington police suggest that it is effective, he said.

"I'm not going in starry-eyed and thinking that what we are doing is going to be a sure fix," Prozanski said. "But based on what we have seen in other states, we will have a reduction in metal theft."

Metal recyclers, however, say that they took on their share of the burden during the 2007 Legislature.

Gerlitz estimated that it cost Schnitzer in the "neighborhood of six figures" to outfit its Eugene, Bend, Grants Pass and White City locations during the past year with security cameras and similar measures.

Anything more could be too costly for smaller recyclers to implement and would also probably discourage a lot of legitimate recycling, he said.

Mandatory reporting and payments by check also would probably see the rise of intermediaries - seemingly legitimate sellers - who would be a buffer between recyclers and thieves, he said.

"The people we deal with are wily," Gerlitz said. "If you say no to one thing, they step back, analyze and find another way."

"As far as preventing the crime itself, the metal recyclers can't help any more," Gerlitz said.

Coalition has goals

For the most part, members of the Oregon Metal Theft Coalition, which includes Schnitzer Steel, seem to agree with Gerlitz.

"Our hope is to focus on the law enforcement side this time around," said Stone, director of government relations for the Oregon Association of Nurseries and the coalition's chairman.

The coalition's goals include making all metal theft a felony; categorizing metal theft as aggravated criminal mischief under Measure 57; creating a "do not buy" list for certain types of metal; requiring transportation documents to travel on public streets with metal; requiring recyclers to collect thumbprints of sellers; and forbidding metal thieves on probation from selling any more metal.

But seeing all of their bills become law in 2009 may be difficult, coalition members said.

For now, the playing field remains open, as the state's meth task force and the Oregon Metal Theft Coalition continue to refine their arguments and strategies before the session begins Jan. 12.

No matter what laws the state chooses to enact, Stone, of the coalition, said he thinks finding a complete solution to metal theft probably will take more than just the 2009 session.

For example, one estimate concluded that if repeat metal theft becomes a Measure 57 crime, prison and drug treatment for offenders could cost the state millions of dollars, coalition member and state Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, said.

"It boils down to what do you want to have as priorities," he said. "At least, should the Oregon Legislature not go toward that, the concept was proposed and vetted. It depends on how serious everybody wants to be."

However, tying metal theft to Measure 57 would ensure that not only are metal thieves punished, but that they also get help with their addictions as mandated in the measure, Olson said.

Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner said he'd like to know where the money to fund something like that is going to come from, considering his office doesn't have enough funding now to prosecute and hold many of the county's criminals.

"Having a tougher sentence doesn't mean anything if we can't even investigate the crime," he said. "In many cases providing for more serious sentences at the state prison level is meaningless to us because we can't get the case to trial."

Gardner said the district attorney's office does not track metal theft prosecutions specifically, so he was unsure how many cases the Circuit Court tries each year.

Likewise, tracking the amount of metal theft in the area is difficult, as reports are categorized as property crime, lumping the statistic in with crimes such as burglary or vandalism.

Rather than pump more money into solving the metal theft epidemic at the state level, Gardner said he'd like support for local jurisdictions. Lane County, he said, should have a shot at prosecuting, jailing and treating offenders.

"Don't get me wrong, many people need to go to prison and go for a long time, but there is so much leakage (from the system)," Gardner said.

"Before we spend a whole bunch more money at the state prison level I'd like to see more recovery of our local system."


A few things the Oregon Metal Theft Coalition may bring before the 2009 Legislature:

Make all metal theft a felony.

Categorize metal theft as aggravated criminal mischief under Measure 57.

Create a "do not buy" list for certain types of metals.

Require documentation to transport metal in a vehicle, similar to those required for livestock and forest products.

Require metal recyclers to collect fingerprints of those selling metal.

Forbid convicted metal thieves on probation from selling metal.

The state Meth Task Force is hoping to see these items discussed during the 2009 session:

Require metal recyclers to pay only in checks, which will be held for 10 days prior to mailing.

Require a physical address for payment; no post office boxes.

Create a set of guidelines recyclers must follow if they believe they have stolen property, including notifying police and holding materials for a certain amount of time.

Align Oregon's metal theft laws with Washington's to control cross-state theft and sales.
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Title Annotation:City/Region; Lawmakers, recyclers and police work to craft laws creating stronger deterrents to metal and wire thefts
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 4, 2009
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