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Stolen History: Metal Thieves Swipe Connecticut's Plaques, Pipes, Landmarks and Statues

Connecticut has a whole lot of history, and a surprising amount of it is being ripped off and melted down for quick cash by thieves and unscrupulous scrap dealers.

The plague of thefts of metal plaques, statues, and fittings from historical monuments, veterans' memorials and landmark buildings has gotten so bad that both state and federal lawmakers have passed tough new penalties to stop it.

"Some of these things are basically irreplaceable," says Christopher Wigren, deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

Wigren says the epidemic of historic thievery — all triggered by huge increases in recent years in prices paid for scrap metals — has infected all parts of the state. Critics complain that law enforcement officials simply aren't enforcing the laws designed to prevent scrap yards from taking all this suspicious metal stuff.

The Hamden-based preservation trust itself hasn't been immune. Thieves broke into the basement of its headquarters in the historic Eli Whitney Boarding House a couple of years ago and stole all the copper piping.

Replacing missing basement plumbing isn't all that difficult or unusual. But it's a different story when someone steals bronze plaques and fittings (replacement cost estimated at $20,000-plus) from a World War I memorial built in 1927.

That's what happened in New Britain in October. The memorial in the city's Walnut Hill Park is listed on the National Register, and included 124 bronze plaques commemorating each of the New Britain men who died in World War I. Four of those plaques and several fittings designed to display flowers were taken and by now have presumably been melted down.

The October incident wasn't the first time New Britain had suffered that sort of loss, according to Mike Hadvab, the city's superintendent of parks.

In 2007, metal pirates struck at Kulper Park, a little triangle at a road junction over on the east side of New Britain. Hadvab says they took a huge six-foot-by-eight-foot plaque listing all the guys from the city who died while serving in World War II. A second, smaller plaque was also ripped off the monument.

"We never had the money to replace them," says Hadvab, who estimates the larger plaque alone would have cost more than $4,000 to replace.

As if that wasn't enough, a second memorial in Walnut Hill Park was also hit a few years back when "several large bronze plaques" honoring the city's industrial leaders went missing.

None of those historical markers have ever been recovered, according to Hadvab.

The catalog of metal artifacts ripped off in Connecticut in recent years is a long one.

A bronze piece in honor of War of 1812 hero Commodore Isaac Hull was stolen in Shelton in December 2011. Ansonia officials reported last year that two plaques went missing from one of their war memorials. Bronze plaques in memory of a World War II Medal of Honor recipient disappeared in Derby.

Copper gutters and downspouts (value estimated at $5,000) were stolen from the Burr Mansion in Fairfield. Two massive statues were carted off from a Waterbury cemetery. Another 19th century bronze statue was taken from the Yantic Cemetery in Norwich and cut into pieces before it was recovered.

What's driving all this thievery is a dramatic rise in the prices you can get for scrap metal. Copper, for instance, went from 65-cents a pound in pre-recession years to $1.25 per pound in 2009, then soared to $4.50 per pound in 2011. The price has dropped a bit since then, but there's no guarantee it won't rise again.

Theft of historical markers is only one part of a national problem that's hitting residential homes, businesses and industrial plants.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple of brilliant fellows broke into a currently closed power plant in New Haven. They left with 50-100 pounds of copper and brass and sold it at a nearby scrap yard, according to a New Haven Independent story.

The only problem was, the plant and the stolen metal were contaminated with cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Somebody spotted the dudes leaving the plant and called the cops. They checked the nearest scrap dealer and found the stuff, and called in the fire department and the hazmat squad. Both thieves were caught.

The problem, according to critics, is that police aren't doing a hell of a lot to enforce existing laws governing scrap yards.

Dealers in scrap are supposed to, among other things, verify the identity of a person selling them metal, keep detailed records of the transaction, submit weekly reports of purchases to local police, and photograph the car or truck that delivered the stuff.

In a lot of cases, according to a lengthy investigative report by the New Haven Register in April 2012, that simply isn't happening. Reporters for the paper had no trouble selling one of the Register's newspaper honor boxes to a Derby scrap dealer for $6, no questions asked and no ID required.

That sort of stuff happens all the time. The rash of thefts from war memorials, however, sent state and federal lawmakers into a patriotic dither.

The 2012 General Assembly responded by making stealing from or desecrating war memorials or monuments a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $5,000.

Even our do-nothing Congress got riled up and in December actually approved legislation upping the federal penalties for messing with veterans' memorials and war memorials. Once the new law takes effect, a thief doing that could get hit with a 5-10 year federal prison term and fines as high as $250,000, or double the amount of the damage.

But just increasing penalties isn't likely to solve the problem.

Even some of the more reputable scrap dealers believe the scumbags in their industry are getting away with way too much in Connecticut. Jerry Green, a Plainville scrap yard owner and New England chapter president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a national trade association, has been quoted as saying "enforcement is lacking."

State Rep. Jason Perillo, a Shelton Republican who co-authored the bill to increase penalties for war memorial thieves, admits it can be tough for the cops to track down the dudes responsible for stealing this stuff and for scrap dealers to always know the origin of the metal they're buying.

But some cases, like a person trying to get money for a big bronze plaque bearing the names of World War II veterans, say, shouldn't be all that difficult.

"One would think a respectable scrap dealer would recognize that was a problem," Perillo says sourly. "But not all scrap dealers are respectable."

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