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After copper wire heists, Billings police struggle with ways to deter the next one

Posted: 10:07 AM, Apr 30, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-30 12:07:29-04

BILLINGS – Months after the copper wire was cut from dozens of Billings street lights, costing taxpayers thousands in repairs, police said they’ve identified a suspect.

However, authorities are bringing to light a bigger issue when it comes to crimes like this: the penalties.

“Even though it’s a misdemeanor crime, we can’t arrest or incarcerate those to prevent either crime,” said Lt. Brandon Wooley with the Billings Police Department.

Damien Aubuchon was cited on April 15 after police found video surveillance showed him stealing copper wire from light poles on Second Avenue North on railroad property.

Copper wire was pulled from street light poles around Billings in November — costing city taxpayers thousands in repairs. Police found Aubuchon with tools to break open light poles and wire. He also had a Billings Public Works padlock and a backpack filled with copper wire.

Aubuchon was cited with misdemeanor criminal mischief because the value of the theft didn’t exceed $1,500.

Often times, thieves will take their stolen copper wire to a recycler in town to get cash in return.

When that happens, Jason Heath with Pacific Steel and Recycling in Billings says he looks for something he calls ‘red flags’.

“So if somebody were to bring a spool of something like this that’s not a contractor, that’s an immediate red flag to you,” said Heath.

Billings police report that there were 15 cases of stolen copper in 2018 and while that number may seem low, and the penalty also seems low, it’s the mess the theft leaves behind that adds up.

“Quality of life offenses,” said Wooley. “It’s the same thing. You have street lights that aren’t working, and you have facilities that don’t have power anymore.”

The copper wire is usually stolen from construction sites and downtown buildings, according to police.

“We don’t want to take stolen items we don’t want to buy from those kinds of people,” said Heath.

Still, Heath said they can’t treat every person who walks in to recycle like a criminal.

In good faith, Health said Pacific Steel checks for ID and tracks every item. The recycler also has cameras rolling on entrances and exits.

“We try to combat it the best we can, but at the same time we can’t question every customer what they’re bringing in,” said Heath.

So after some experience in the business, it’s those red flags that Heath said they watch for.

“Those big quantities we will ask them, as one of those preventive measures. And obviously, if they start getting fidgety. Or a common one excuse is, I found it in my grandpa’s barn,” said Heath.

Wooley says that’s because the amount of copper caught at a time is usually so small officers are bound by the constraints of the law, handing over only a misdemeanor citation like in the Aubuchon case, with the hope the suspected thief will show up in court.

“This copper wire, it’s not serialized. It’s been stripped from the plastic cabling that would help identify it,” said Wooley. “I suspect that there’s far more that isn’t being reported because they know that there are no serial numbers.”

All that work, for something Heath says it’s even that lucrative. A pound of copper wire will only net you roughly $1 to $2 depending on the commodity’s prices.

“Fifty pounds of copper will net you about $100,” said Heath. “If a business has something stolen we are alerted and can be on the watch.”

-Andrea Lutz reporting for MTN News