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Frank Gray

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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
State officials say thieves are targeting light towers like this one for copper wire. Such towers often contain more than 900 feet of wiring.

Pesky thieves leave drivers in the dark

Gerardo

For years now, thieves have been stripping aluminum siding off vacant homes, and all neighborhood associations could do was ask neighbors not to look the other way when it happens.

Thieves have ripped the copper pipes out of empty houses. They’ve even stolen the air-conditioning units outside churches and seemingly been able to recycle the metal with no problem.

Now, the same type of thieves are tearing the wires out of the huge lights that illuminate interstate highway exchanges and rest areas, and the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Indiana State Police are mad. They, too, want people to call 911 when they notice people fiddling around these lights, no matter how official they might appear.

It was around last June when officials first came across the problem. Lights were going dark, and when crews investigated the problem they discovered that someone had actually yanked out all the wires feeding these light towers.

The thieves were able to get away with the thefts unnoticed for a while. Lights are checked only about once a month to see whether they’re operating. If there’s a problem, it might take another month for a crew to show up to investigate the problem and discover the theft.

At first, the thefts seemed to be isolated incidents; but when officials in different parts of the state started talking, they realized it was happening everywhere. It’s actually a problem nationwide, said Gary Gerardo, a master trooper with the Indiana State Police. It started on the coasts and worked its way inland.

In a way, it seems it would be hard not to notice someone doing this; then again, when you’re traveling on a highway at 65 mph, it’s easy to miss things. The thieves seem to realize this and have stripped perhaps 100 area light poles of their wire in the last few months.

The typical light tower contains about 900 feet of wire, so this isn’t something that can be pulled off in a hurry. Officials said it’s the kind of theft that probably takes at least a half-hour to pull off. It’s likely that the thefts take place during daylight when the lights are turned off, police said, and it might require some machinery. Yanking 900 feet of wire out of towers and the ground isn’t easy.

“They have to be doing something to blend in because it takes too long” to commit a theft like this, Gerardo said.

But all it takes to blend in along the interstate is a truck with a logo and some guys in day-glow green vests and maybe hardhats. That’s why the police want drivers to report anyone they see.

So how much damage are these thieves doing? Dana Plattner, a district traffic engineer with the Fort Wayne district of the Department of Transportation, won’t say what it costs to repair the damage. Officials don’t want to encourage thieves, but you can bet it costs a lot more to replace several hundred feet of copper wire than just the cost of the wire.

So police are asking anyone who even sees a truck with workers near one of these lights to report it to 911.

Gerardo, though, points to one flaw in the system that lets thieves get away with this. In Fort Wayne, recyclers are required to gather plenty of information on people who recycle goods, including identification, a thumbprint and a photo of the recycled goods and they must hold the goods for seven days. Outside the city are what Gerardo calls watered-down state regulations.

Now that the state is getting ripped off, perhaps the issue will attract a little more attention.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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