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06 March 2008 – 9:18AM

Australia’s new crime wave

By Nikki Taylor


Australian Energy Minister Ian Macdonald
ACTION: Energy Minister Ian Macdonald shows a copper cable cut by a would-be thief

AFTER working on an empty house he is preparing to sell, 80 year-old Earl Thelander goes home to relax and get a good night’s sleep.

At eight o’clock the next morning he returns to the property and notices the house has been burgled. Shaking his head in annoyance he steps inside to check for any sign of damage.

Because it is still early he reaches out and turns on a light.

It is this innocent flick of a switch that will inevitably end his life.

Overnight thieves had broken into Mr Thelander’s house to steal copper. During the theft a propane line had been damaged causing the house to fill with explosive gas. When the eighty year-old grandfather flicked the light switch, he triggered a propane explosion which caused excruciating second and third degree burns to his body.

After four angonising days in hospital Mr Thelander died.

The copper stolen was worth just $20.

Although this incident occurred in Iowa USA, incidents of copper theft have grown by up to 255 per cent throughout Australia in the last year.

In November 2007, thieves in Parramatta NSW covered their faces with stockings and ripped copper piping down from public housing units causing rain to pour into homes.

Residents were left to live with the rotting stench of rancid carpet as well as being subjected to further burglary.

Moving to Melbourne and reports show two level rail crossings had to be closed after 50 metres of electrified copper cabling was stolen from train lines in Mont Albert.

The theft led to hours of chaotic traffic conditions, as well as the threat of human fatality due to a lack of accurate traffic signals.

Continuing around the country and two guard dogs were killed with cross bows in Western Australia when thieves broke into a building site and stole scrap copper from cable drums.

In South Australia 4000 chickens died a slow death when electricity to fans was cut to enable copper thieves to break in and steal $5000 worth of copper piping.

Place the microscope on the Upper Hunter and police are quick to admit copper theft is at an all time high.

Copper theft is not new in Australia, but as commodity prices soar the price of copper continues to skyrocket.

According to latest numbers released by the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics(ABARE) the value of Australian commodity exports is forecast to increase to a record $189 billion in 2008-09.

This year alone the price of copper has risen by 41 per cent, creating an initiative for thieves to become bolder and more inventive in their attempt to make money from the emerging market.

Statistics have shown more than $100,000 worth of stolen copper is traded each month in NSW, but the State government say they are taking the necessary steps to bring an end to the ever growing problem.

Energy Minister Ian Macdonald said a series of community service announcements appearing on television and radio were warning people about the dangers and disruption of interfering with public utilities. “We are calling on members of the public to be aware of this crime, and the crippling effect it is having on schools, transport and power supplies. I’d like to call on all construction sites and related business in Scone to work with police in cracking down on this escalating trend,” he said.

He also warned potential thieves to be aware copper can be traced by police.

“People illegally trading in copper should be aware copper can be traced by police either because it has been tagged with permanent tracing technology or because scrap metal dealers can now keep a record of the source of all copper transactions,” he said.

Minister for Police David Campbell, said dispute high crime numbers he believes the new campaign is working.

“In the last two months there have been 90 reports of copper theft to the police, with elevated rates of arrests when compared to figures before the public campaign. These statistics reveal the campaign is working and police are committed to seeing the perpetrators of this crime caught and punished accordingly.”

Also on board in the fight against copper crime is new recruit, TV carpenter Scott Cam.

The NSW Government enlisted the TV presenter’s help in the hope his message might have some impact on viewers.

For Cam, it was an issue that hit close to home.

“If you work in construction, make sure you secure the work site. Do not leave tools or copper wires exposed for easy access, and help spread the word about the consequences of stealing and illegally trading in copper,” he said.

Hot spots for copper theft in NSW centre on construction sites, residential sites and development projects, and rail lines.

Crime Stoppers have empowered scrap metal dealers to say no to stolen copper and are now calling on the public to act on any information they may have.

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