By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Indulge Buzz in a childhood flashback: We were around 10 when a buddy got his hands on some discarded window counterweights--about a dozen bars of iron, weighing roughly a ton. (Maybe it only seemed that much.) A local junkyard paid money for scrap, so we dragged the bars about two miles on foot through August heat to the yard, where a nice lady told us they weren't worth anything and gave us 50 cents to go away.
We said some not nice words. Very not nice.
We bet the four detectives and the sergeant assigned to the Dallas police "metals squad" have heard some of those words.
OK, so most everyone knows thefts of copper are way up, but the recent mention of the squad in Time surprised us. That's four detectives assigned to work on cases of purloined pipes and wires and air conditioners, stolen chiefly for the copper, though other metals are hot too. Copper is worth somewhere around $3.50 a pound, so that sounds like a lot of detectives, right? It's not nearly enough.
Police Sergeant W.B. Wilson with the central investigative unit says his squad has seen around 1,500 cases this year in which metal appears to be the target of thefts. There were 1,000 last year, 787 in 2004 and 430 in 2003. These thieves do countless thousands of dollars in damage to get at the metal.
"When they don't have anything and they need money...they can get $10 for [the metal], and that's a crack rock," Wilson says.
The officers routinely check 22 scrap metal yards. Scrap yards in Dallas tag and hold suspect metals for inspection, Wilson says, but the city's ordinance regulating the yards is tougher than state law, which controls businesses just outside city limits. Wilson says the department is working with the city and state in hopes of strengthening the laws, but that's still being worked out. As it stands, the punishment for the thieves they catch is often so light that the squad sees repeat offenders released from jail and hustling hot metal again.
Remembering our long haul dragging those two tons of pig iron, we ask Wilson if metal thieves are particularly stupid. The payoff for the hard work dismantling and hauling an air conditioner can't be much more than a day spent working for minimum wage flipping burgers. Wilson laughs.
"I've often thought of the thieves that if they'd apply some of their initiative somewhere else, they'd make great salesmen," he says.