MAGNOLIA, Ark. (Entergy) — Steal copper, and you might die doing it. If you don’t die, you might go to jail for it.
That’s the word that Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe has for the criminals who think cutting copper off of electrical systems or other sources and selling it as scrap is a viable way to pick up a few bucks.
Antonia Sterling, 26, of Stamps, was arrested June 21, suspected of stealing more than 12,000 pounds of copper in southwest Arkansas over the last 11 months, Loe said.
Sterling is in the Columbia County jail in lieu of $150,000 bond. David F. Butler of the Columbia County Prosecuting attorney’s office has filed 30 criminal charges against Sterling , including theft of public utility property, destruction of public utility property, and criminal mischief. The probable cause affidavit indicates Sterling stole wire belonging to Entergy on 14 occasions between January 9, 2013 and June 21, 2013.
Penalties for all the charges combined could land Sterling a prison sentence of as long as 124 years.
“Besides being dangerous and illegal, copper theft hurts everybody,” said Entergy Arkansas’ Blake Gore, a line supervisor out of Magnolia. “When thieves steal copper components from power lines and substations, lights go out. And if they don’t go out, at best, the system becomes unstable and must be repaired. Repairs are expensive, and those costs get passed along to all Entergy Arkansas customers.”
Copper theft has been a significant problem nationwide for years. However, Gore said the cases really picked up in the last six months with more than 100 copper thefts reported in the area he’s responsible for, which includes Columbia, Miller, Lafayette, Ouachita and Nevada counties. Repairs already made have cost about $1 million, and more are needed, Gore said. “The thieves are stealing copper faster than we can repair the damage,” he said.
Gore presented his problem to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office earlier this year, and Sheriff Loe agreed it was important to make catching copper thieves a priority. He dedicated significant resources to the task, and worked closely with Gore.
Entergy’s Gore said, “I can’t say enough good things about the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. They have combated this problem with long hours in the field and shrewd police work, and their efforts are paying off for the citizens of southwest Arkansas. We really appreciate their help. Thanks also to the Magnolia Police Department, which played a key role, and to David Butler for making this case a priority.”
While the Sterling arrest is a significant development, Loe said there are numerous others stealing copper. To protect the reliability of the electrical system and to prevent the need for expensive repairs, Loe asks for help from the public in identifying copper thieves. “Watch for suspicious activities, such as vehicles parked on the side of the road at night, especially near oil fields, or anyone walking down a road carrying wire, wire-cutting tools, or fiberglass extension sticks. If you see something or someone suspicious, call law enforcement immediately. If you have information on past thefts or ongoing issues, please call your local law enforcement agency.”
Besides being illegal and a nuisance, stealing copper can also be fatal. As recently as July 31, just across the Arkansas border in Pocola, Okla., a man was found dead at an electrical transfer box at a concrete mill. Police say the 38-year-old man and at least one accomplice were stealing copper when the man was electrocuted.
Six years ago a man was electrocuted after climbing a ladder up a utility pole in Columbia County and cutting into live wires to steal copper, Gore said.
Entergy Arkansas intends to work with law enforcement to prosecute all copper theft cases to the fullest extent of the law.
Entergy Arkansas, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, provides electricity to approximately 700,000 customers in 63 counties.
Entergy Arkansas is a subsidiary of Entergy Corporation, an integrated energy company engaged primarily in electric power production and retail distribution operations. Entergy Corporation’s utilities own and operate power plants with approximately 30,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity, including more than 10,000 megawatts of nuclear power, making it one of the nation’s leading nuclear generators. The Entergy utilities deliver electricity to 2.8 million utility customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Entergy Corporation has annual revenues of more than $11 billion and approximately 15,000 employees.