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Frank Gray

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

Roadway copper wire alerts yield quick payoff

Thieves must not read the newspaper, and I guess that’s a good thing in its own way.

Otherwise, a couple of alleged copper wire thieves might not have been caught.

It was March 18 when the Indiana State Police and the Indiana Department of Transportation held a news conference announcing some surprising thefts.

Since last June, thieves had been cutting the wires connecting the big lights that illuminate rest areas and interchanges along interstate highways in this part of the state and taking the cable.

No one noticed the thefts right away. The Department of Transportation only inspects lights about once a month, and if one is found to not be working, it takes about a month to get a work crew to make repairs.

That’s when workers realized that some lights had been stripped of about 900 feet of copper wire.

Troopers put out the word, asking motorists to be on the lookout for people fiddling around these lights.

Sure, they said, maybe these people look like they belong there, but motorists were asked to err on the side of caution and call 911. Police could then quickly determine whether the transportation department actually had a crew in a certain spot or whether it could be thieves at work.

Police started getting calls, and it took about a week for the strategy to work.

Operating on a tip, state troopers were alerted to a couple of men walking along an interchange on Interstate 69.

Ultimately, the men got into a nearby pickup truck, drove onto an entrance ramp, stopped at the end and loaded something into their truck.

When police stopped the truck later, they found 10 coils of copper wire, and they also found that the wire had been removed from four lights in the interchange where they had stopped.

Ron Galaviz, public information officer for the state police post in Fort Wayne, said he couldn’t go into detail about the tip or where it came from, other than to say it wasn’t from a passing motorist.

But that doesn’t matter. Two men who had allegedly taken the wire from the lights had been caught.

It isn’t clear when the men cut the cable leading to the lights, but they did wait until dark to come by and pick up the coils of wire, which have considerable value.

This doesn’t mean that the problem of wire thefts from roadway lights has been solved.

These thefts have been taking place for months all over the state, so it’s quite possible there are other thieves out there continuing to rip out cable, leaving interchanges and rest areas in the dark.

There are bound to be copycats, Galaviz said. It’s estimated, for example, that each person who cooks meth has taught 10 other people to cook meth, so it’s reasonable to suspect that plenty of thieves have been given lessons in gutting interstate lighting systems.

The police who arrested the two men might have actually done them a favor, though. You can get electrocuted cutting those wires, Galaviz said.

Personally, I think a free night’s lodging in a local jail and a felony record is a more fitting favor.

Meanwhile, motorists should continue to be suspicious of official-looking people working around these lights and not be reluctant to call 911.

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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