Copper theft is being described as both a crime of opportunity and a huge safety risk as police see an increase of thieves cutting and removing miles of wire to take to scrap metal recyclers for a quick cash-in.
Both Verizon and Delmarva Power Company have been recent victims.
Maryland State Police arrested two people suspected of being behind the theft of thousands of feet of copper wire from six Verizon properties in Cecil County, police said Monday.
Adam Patterson, a 28-year-old North East man, has been charged with 10 counts of felony theft and malicious destruction. He is being held on $10,000 bond in the Cecil County Detention Center. He also has two charges of parole violation, increasing his bond to $13,000.
Police are withholding the name of the other suspect, a woman, until she is formally charged.
Detective Sgt. Steve Seipp said Patterson and the woman were arrested Thursday.
"He came walking up the road pulling a wagon full of spaghetti wire," Seipp said, referring to the name police gave the thick cable, which becomes a tangled mess once the plastic shield is burned away.
"This wire is as thick as your ankle...thousands of strands of copper wire," Seipp said. "Once it's burned it looks like spaghetti."
Seipp said Patterson admitted to his role in all the thefts on Verizon properties.
"He told us all the ones he went to and it matched our reports," he said.
Matt Likovich, spokesman for Delmarva, said a Sept. 28 theft in Sussex County, Delaware, took out power to 37,000 customers.
"We couldn't figure out what the problem was," Likovich said. "It was a blue sky day."
Customers were rerouted and the outage was eventually traced back to vandalism at a substation in Bethany Beach. Likovich said these thieves are taking a huge risk when they mess with live wires.
"This is an exceedingly high voltage area. Our personnel are trained to go in there," he said.
Patterson told police it was the ultimate crime of opportunity. He would use what was available to gain access to the overhead cables.
"If someone left a ladder in the yard he'd use it," Seipp said. "He used a pool ladder one time.
"He climbed a tree, used a saw and hacked it off," he said.
While the Verizon lines may be lower voltage, Delmarva's copper cables can carry several thousand kilovolts of electricity.
"Electricity is very fickle. It can act in ways you don't expect," Likovich said. While the thief risks instant death, taking anything out of the system leaves Delmarva employees at risk of injury or death because of the circuit interruption.
There is also a risk to the public.
"If this (substation) was in a residential area ... and they leave a hole in the fence you're creating a safety hazard for children," he said.
"All this just to reap a few dollars on the scrap metal market," he said. "The people doing this are foolish. It's not worth the risk."
When it was first reported earlier this month, a spokeswoman for Verizon was uncertain how much disruption the thefts caused telephone and Internet customers.
Seipp said he did not know if the $10,000 reward being offered by Verizon had been awarded to anyone.
Likovich said the cost of repairs is "eventually passed onto our customers in the form of higher rates."