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Scrap metal dealers work with police to catch thieves

Julia Scheib
505-5439/@JuliaDispatch

Sometime around Halloween, three weather vanes, three lightning rods and 100 feet of copper grounding wire went missing from the top of a barn on Joyce Brodbeck's East Manchester Township property.

Paz Metals owner Arie Yohanan, left, talks with employee Edwin Batista about a shipment of old powerlines at the Hellam Township business Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Bill Kalina - bkalina@yorkdispatch.com

A dent in the barn's gutter indicated that someone propped a ladder on the front of the building and climbed up, then walked around on the steeply slanted roof and pilfered the items from the peak.

"Who would look at it and say, 'There's something I can steal for money'?" the homeowner wondered.

Northeastern Regional Police Chief Bryan Rizzo said people often steal metal items from homes — albeit ones closer to the ground, like copper piping and metal grates.

After the fact: Thieves can turn their stolen metal into cash by selling it to scrap metal dealers, but not without the risk of getting caught.

At Paz Metals in York Township, workers know to look out for specific types of items when police alert them to thefts, said co-owner Arie Yohanan.

"They ask us to buy (potential stolen material)," Yohanan said. "Then they come and inspect it." If the scrap in question doesn't match the description of the stolen material, they tell the company to go ahead and recycle it, he said.

The company keeps records of each purchase it makes, maintaining a file on every person who sells scrap there, including a copy of the person's driver's license and their home address.

Tai Yohanan, son of Paz Metals owner Arie Yohanan, collects a pile of wire at the Hellam Township business Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Bill Kalina - bkalina@yorkdispatch.com

They also have high-quality security cameras, which greatly aid in their efforts to help police.

"When we get a report of a theft, we start calling around to all the scrapyards. It's the same with pawn shops" when jewelry or other goods are stolen, said Hellam Township Police Chief Mark Sowers.

When the price of scrap is high, said Sowers, the police department gets many complaints about stolen metal. But lately the price has been very low and complaints come less frequently.

The police department has worked closely with Paz Metals, helping them establish a thorough procedure to track and keep records of each purchase.

Sometimes, their efforts result in a bust.

A few months ago some people started selling them large quantities of copper electrical wire, Yohanan said. The company contacted the police, who asked that they continue to buy from those same people.

This went on for months.

The copper turned out to be stolen from a railroad, he said. After enough evidence of the theft had been gathered, railroad police conducted an undercover operation at Paz: some watched surveillance footage on a television in the upstairs office and others posed as workers on the floor.

"They arrested them on the spot," Yohanan said.

Not buying it:

Paz Metals employees Adiglao Irizarry, left, and his brother Manuel load wire insulation into a dumpster at the Hellam Township business Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Bill Kalina - bkalina@yorkdispatch.com

Ben Abrams, president of Consolidate Scrap Resources in York City, said new employees at CSR are trained to see red flags and to ask people selling scrap how they got the material.

"Are they a contractor, a homeowner ... " he said.

If something seems fishy, the company simply won't buy the material, he said.

"(Metal theft) has become such a problem in York over the past several years," said Capt. Tim Utley of the York City Police Department, who supervised the detective bureau until a few years ago.

And to his knowledge CSR has always been cooperative with police when they are conducting an investigation, he said. "More times than not, we've been given a heads-up (by the company)," he said. "We've never had any investigations stymied from lack of cooperation."

Many different types of items come through scrapyards, but some can immediately be pegged as suspicious.

Utley remembered a time when someone was stealing the bases of gravestone markers and selling them to CSR.

"Anything like that they had coming in, we'd get very good cooperation from them," he said.

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.