“It is a huge, huge problem!”
This was how Department of Public Safety Commissioner Rebecca Warfield assessed the situation caused by these “new brand of criminals”-copper wire thieves-who have caused havoc on Saipan in the past few months.
“It's horrible!” Commonwealth Utilities Corp. spokesperson Pamela Mathis said of the effect of the thieves' actions, not only on CUC but also on the entire community.
“It's not acceptable in our community!” This was the strong statement of House Minority Arnold Palacios of these criminal acts.
DPS reported the rise of copper wire thefts on the island only last month after receiving several reports of burglary and criminal mischief complaints, where the victims were CUC, private businesses, and some government agencies.
According to the complaints, perpetrators would cut and rip out the wirings from walls, generators, and water pumps that contain the wires.
“Copper wire theft is a growing problem and is affecting everyone in the community because not only the businesses or government agencies are targeted by these criminals,” said acting DPS spokesman Sgt. Thomas A. Blas Jr.
When these thieves break into establishments and cut the wires, they cause outages on telephones, power, and water.
“The cost of repair comes back to us. The community suffers greatly,” Blas said.
New crime type
Acting police director Capt. Pete Leon Guerrero admitted that this type of theft is new to him and that he just heard about this a couple of months ago when the perpetrators started stealing cable wires.
“I didn't even know that copper cost a pretty good amount of money,” Leon Guerrero said.
He believes, though, that the people behind these crimes are no common thieves.
“We're talking about individuals who probably know wires better than anybody else. You're seeing it, they know what to get, they know how to get them. They even know whether the power is on or not,” Leon Guerrero pointed out.
Police and court records show that stealing copper wires actually happened at least once last year.
Between July 29 to Aug. 1, 2005, Ryan Duenas, 20, Anthony P. Santos, 35, and Francisco Reyes Santos, 49, reportedly conspired to break into the CNMI Water Task Force warehouse in Lower Base.
In that incident, several spools of wire and machinery worth an estimated $61,181 that belonged to CUC were stolen.
A tip to the DPS Thief Apprehension Select Coalition and Special Investigation Section led to the arrest of the three.
Duenas and Anthony Santos entered a plea agreement with the government. They pleaded guilty to burglary. Their sentencing was set for Dec. 12, 2006. The case against Francisco Santos is pending in court.
It was in the early part of 2006 that stealing copper wires took off on the island. As time passed, the thieves have become bolder. Now they are also taking away power meters. Police said that residential houses in Kagman, Navy Hill, and Chalan Laulau had been burglarized and electrical wirings and power meters were stolen.
CUC also reported that thieves cut the power lines from one pole to the other not far from a water pump station in As Perdido.
Some investigators said these thieves are committing these crimes because of the bad economy. Others believed it's about the money.
Recycling centers buy copper wires at $3 to $4 per pound. Some investigators say this is enough to entice thieves to keep at it-at least until they are caught.
There are at least six recycling centers on Saipan. The shops would ship these recycled items, including copper wires, to China, Hong Kong or the Far East where the market is.
An employee of one recycling center told Saipan Tribune that their shop does not buy the big copper wires because they know these are stolen.
The employee, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak, said that when this issue started to come out, they began to ask identification cards and would jot down the license plates of the sellers, upon the instruction of the police.
Before, anybody could sell any scrap materials without giving their identification cards because there was no law or regulations requiring IDs, he said.
Mathis cited that last year's incidents of stolen wires and machinery cost CUC over $61,000. She said water pumps were targeted last July and this has become the trend since then. Mathis said that damage to CUC was estimated at $25,000 beginning in the end of July alone.
Kathryn Barry, PTI's regional marketing manager, said these thieves have caused over $10,000 in damages to PTI as of November.
Barry said these criminals are not only stealing and vandalizing physical property that belong to PTI but also those that belong to residents.
PTI's concern is that in the event of an emergency, affected customers would not be able to call 911 because of the wires had been cut, she pointed out.
The alarming problem caught the attention of House Minority Leader Arnold I. Palacios five months ago. Palacios then started talking with law enforcement officers.
Law enforcement officers informed the congressman about the need for reporting requirements so that it would give them the tools to conduct proper investigations.
Investigators suspect that the products being stolen would end up being sold at recycling centers.
With seven other lawmakers, Palacios drafted House Bill 15-164 (Recycling Reporting Act) that requires recycling companies to keep a record of persons selling copper wires and scrap metals. Acting Gov. Timothy P. Villagomez recently signed that bill into Public Law 15-36.
The law mandates recycling business owners to keep a record of information regarding the person selling scrap metal and the purchase transaction. Personal information that will be collected from scrap metal sellers include name, date of birth, sex, height, weight, race and address. Identification cards will also be required.
Palacios commended Villagomez for signing the bill into law.
“I think it is a legislation that perhaps should not have been in there but the fact is, we have all this rash of burglaries, particularly copper wires. These are very highly valued products,” he said.
“Not only are they yanking wires out of a public facility or large facility, they are even doing it at some residential areas. So this is something that really needs to be addressed and I hope that with this law it will assist DPS in their investigation to curb this rash of stealing copper wires,” he said.
Mathis said the legislation is a great first step to address the problem.
Warfield was happy with the Recycling Reporting Act. She said this will be a tremendous help to investigators.
Leon Guerrero also praised the legislation. He said it is a big help to them because, with the new law, recycling centers are treated like pawnshops now.
Warfield disclosed that DPS has devoted a team to crack down on these copper wire thieves.
“They are making progress with regards to copper wire thefts,” said Warfield. “What our officers are doing is canvassing all those recycling places and politely explaining to them the law with regard to obstruction of justice and receipt of stolen property.”
The commissioner also revealed that they even intercepted stolen wires coming over from Tinian and that they are also experiencing such problems in Rota.
Although the FBI is quiet about the issue, obviously they are involved in the investigation, Saipan Tribune learned.
Leon Guerrero said DPS is working closely with other agencies that are looking into the problem.
“They're doing a lot of follow-ups and a lot of pending investigations. I cannot really divulge right now, but I know it's a top priority for them,” Leon Guerrero said.
The acting police director suggested that big businesses should hire security guards. He said businesses or agencies should also put lighting around their facilities.
For CUC, Mathis said they are working closely with law enforcement agencies.
“We are quite actively alert and are aggressively working on stopping the crimes as well as teaching the people to be responsible,” Mathis added.
With respect to PTI, Barry said they are coordinating with the NMI Crime Stoppers Program.
Barry said they are offering $1,000 cash reward on top of the up to $1,000 cash reward that Crime Stoppers is already offering for tips that lead to an arrest.
“We feel that this is serious and we want it to stop so that all of us as a community can get back to having what we deserve to have to have, which is reliable communication,” she pointed out.
As of yesterday, no one has been arrested yet. With all the noise created by DPS and different agencies about the problem, the copper wire thieves are silent-momentarily. But surely, as thugs in the dark they will strike again anytime.
Leon Guerrero and Palacios agreed that somewhere along the line, probably not today or tomorrow but soon, these thieves will be caught.
“My Dad used to always tell me.if you don't want to get caught just don't do it,” Leon Guerrero said.