Metal thieves who have stripped wires from street lights and statues from parks have found markets at illegal scrapyards in Southern California, authorities said.
With copper prices soaring, California authorities reported an epidemic of metal thefts. Crooks have torn up train tracks, stolen air conditioners from schools, and earlier this summer made off with a 200-pound brass bell from a Pico Rivera church. Modesto's airport lost its runway lights twice in recent years.
Burglars stealing copper wire also blacked out a quarter of the 40,000 street lights in Sacramento over the past 18 months. The city spent more than $1.5 million on repairs and secured wiring access panels.
At least six people have been electrocuted while stealing wire in California in the last two years.
Officials said salvage yards without permits have sprung up in Los Angeles County to take advantage of access to ports so the metal can be resold to Asian factories. Even some legitimate scrapyards may be ignoring laws in order to cash in on the lucrative export trade.
"It's a tremendous problem," state Senator Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, said of metal thefts. "It's very expensive, and it's very dangerous."
Los Angeles police Detective Kevin Romine said he has shut down a dozen unpermitted yards in his year on the job. At least half of the non-iron metal in city scrapyards probably is stolen, he told the Los Angeles Times.
"I learned a long time ago, it's more than I can handle," added Los Angeles County sheriff's Detective Dave Chapman, who also tackles metal thefts.
California law requires metal sellers to provide photo identification to scrapyards and to wait at least three days for payment. Salvage yards can be fined up to $1,000 if they knowingly buy stolen metal.
But authorities and scrap operators say the laws have been ineffective, partly because of a lack of funding for enforcement.
"In other states, they have people who actually enforce the law," said Jeff Ferrano, attorney for SA Recycling of Anaheim, one of the state's largest metal recyclers.
Thieves from California's Central Valley may be heading south to sell their loot.
"It's easy to come sell it down here because there's so many of these little rogue operations," said Mona Howerton, who co-owns a legitimate recycling business in South Los Angeles. "There's no consequence."