Despite the high volume of copper pipe thefts that have hit many businesses in Chatsworth during the last year, the Los Angeles Police Department detective who is investigating those cases said the culprits are likely just two individuals.
Thieves with manual or electric saws can rob a business of its exposed copper water pipes in less than a minute, Detective Dennis Bopp said.
"They cut at each end, grab the pipe and the regulator, and they're out. It's just that fast," Bopp said.
Though Bopp said the payoff for stealing copper isn't great—it only sells for about $4 a pound—one thief can quickly and easily hit several different buildings in one night.
"Copper is heavy, and those pounds add up pretty quick. If you do a few of these jobs, the money can add up ...," Bopp said, adding, however, "You're not going to get rich [stealing copper]."
Over in Burbank, police said Wednesday that thefts of copper piping, wiring and other metals are increasing.
Targets have included power substations, parks and businesses. Wiring and piping have been taken from power poles, lighting fixtures and air conditioning units, with thieves using wire cutters or bolt cutters. The wiring or piping can then be sold as scrap, Burbank police told City News Service.
Copper wiring has also been taken from baseball field light poles, and there was also an attempt to steal aluminum park benches, police said.
In Chatsworth, thieves are taking advantage of a steep rise in the price of copper as a result of massive building developments in countries such as China, where the demand for the metal is driving prices upward.
Bopp said he believed that the thieves were either people looking to supplement their income during the downturned economy, or drug addicts looking for any way to support their habit.
Whoever they may be, the thieves have been difficult to catch. Since March, anywhere from 25 to 28 copper thefts have been reported around the intersection of Winnetka Avenue and Plummer Street.
The quickness of the crimes and a lack of security surveillance in the business parks where they've occurred have left police with few leads.
Bopp said one of the only breaks his department has had in the thefts was a single surveillance video that showed one apparent thief looking into the business and cutting off a section of pipe before driving away. Police were unable to obtain a license plate number from that video, and could only describe the man as "stocky."
Bopp said he suspects there are likely other pairs of thieves operating in nearby areas of the San Fernando Valley; an employee of one business on Balboa Boulevard reported to police that, leaving work late one night, he caught someone in the act of cutting a pipe. The suspect ran back to his car where an apparent accomplice, a female, was waiting.
Bopp said that instance was typical of the way the thieves operate: One quickly runs up to the business to cut the pipe, while another sits in a getaway vehicle acting as lookout.
Bopp said police have been working with scrap shops to try to track down the thieves, but he acknowledged that copper thefts were a very difficult crime to stop.
"The cooperative [scrap shops] have been looking out for us, but it's just hard to do. They get a ton of copper every day, and none of these things are identifiable through a serial number or anything, so how are you going to know what goes where?" Bopp said.
Bopp said he believed the only way for businesses to avoid becoming targets was to buy a metal encasing for the exposed pipes. Such encasings could prevent business owners from having to pay several thousand dollars to replace the pipes.