After the power failed in an Essex neighborhood earlier this year, BGE officials discovered that someone had been stealing copper wire from the tops of utility poles. Oddly enough, however, they found no marks on the poles indicating that the culprit had climbed roughly 40 feet to reach the wire.

Baltimore County police figured they might have their suspect when an officer on patrol in Dundalk spotted an unmarked white Ford van equipped with a bucket lift, and a man alongside the van stripping insulation from copper wire, according to a police report. Checking the back of the van, the officer noticed large coils of stripped copper wire.

Shawn P. Thomas, a 30-year-old man from Middle River, is now facing felony charges for stealing wire from BGE worth between $10,000 and $100,000. County police say his case is one of the more notorious examples of an illegal trade in stolen metals that has grown so severe that they have established what they believe is the first task force in Maryland dedicated to investigating metal thefts.

At a news conference Monday to announce the creation of the new investigative team, Police Chief Jim Johnson talked about the "devastating impact of metal theft on our communities." Estimating the value of stolen metals in millions of dollars a year, Johnson said theft of copper — the most common target — has more than quadrupled in the county since 2009, and nearly doubled as a share of all metal theft.

He said homeowners and businesses struck by metal thieves often take two hits: once in the loss of the materials themselves, and again in the damage the thieves do getting to the wire or pipes. Thieves can leave behind a trail of torn walls and ceilings, and basements flooded when copper water pipes are cut.

Calling the problem "countywide," Johnson said it has grown into something more like a business since the days when metal theft was more commonly carried out by drug addicts desperate for a few quick dollars.

In historic neighborhoods such as Stoneleigh, he said, thieves are often after copper fittings on gutters and downspouts — materials that can be difficult to replace. In Pikesville, someone made off with a decorative bronze figure of a monkey. On the east side, a man recently spotted two men in his backyard with a Chevrolet truck stealing a steel wheelchair ramp installed for his son..

The news conference was held at a BGE training center in White Marsh, as the utility has so often been the victim of copper wire thieves. Ken DeFontes, the utility's president and CEO, said the thefts are part of a "nationwide problem" and can cause service failures.

Because copper wire can be very difficult to trace, DeFontes said, BGE will start marking its wire with a coat of lime-green paint.

Detective Cpl. Morgan Hassler, who heads the new task force, said tracing the stolen goods to the source is one of several difficulties in solving the crime. Thefts often take place in vacant or remote properties, so it's hard to pin down the time they occur, and there are usually no witnesses.

Johnson said a supervising corporal and four detectives are assigned to the task force, which was established March 1. He likened the unit to a car theft team established two decades ago, and said he expected it would become a standing part of department operations.

Police say incidents of metal theft have probably been mounting for a few reasons. Copper prices have increased due in part to international demand; at the same time, economic decline at home has meant more incentive for property crime and more homes left vacant and vulnerable to burglars.

County police recently charged a Baltimore City man with burglary, theft and malicious destruction of property in connection with break-ins at five vacant homes in the Woodlawn and Pikesville areas late last month. The police report said Derrick N. Wingate, 31, is suspected of stealing copper pipe from four homes. In one instance, the stolen copper pipe was worth about $200, but the flood damage was estimated at $5,000.

In another case investigated by the Metals Theft Team, Thomas is accused of taking wire from poles and power stations in February and March.

"They're making a livelihood out of it," said police spokeswoman Elise Armacost. "It's like a business."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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