It is no simple matter -- not like swiping metal trash cans or lawn furniture -- to cut down and haul away a 30-foot-high aluminum light pole. It is conspicuous and dangerous.
But about 130 of them have disappeared from Baltimore thoroughfares without a trace in recent weeks.
"I've been here 23 years, and I've seen just about everything," said Mike Decker, owner of Decker's Salvage Co. in Baltimore. "People will steal anything here."
Decker and other local scrap-metal recyclers say they haven't come across any of the poles reported stolen over the past six weeks, and speculated that they are being cut up and sold outside the city because of a law here requiring scrap-metal dealers to record personal information -- such as driver's license and tag numbers -- of people bringing in metal goods.
The thefts have been costly to the city. Each pole costs $750, according to David Brown, a spokesman for the city Department of Transportation. Factor in installation costs and it's up to $1,200 each -- multiplied by 130 poles.
"We need it to stop this because it's costing the city a fortune," Brown said yesterday.
There have been no arrests, other than a man charged with theft Saturday in East Baltimore after a 30-foot lamppost was spotted sticking out of the window of the station wagon he was driving. But the pole he is charged with taking had been knocked down earlier by a vehicle, and he has not been linked to the pole-napping elsewhere in the city.
Brown said the thieves seemed to have a sophisticated operation -- being skilled enough to avoid electrical shock when cutting through metal and wiring, and careful not to remove consecutive poles along a roadway.
"Whoever is taking them down from long stretches of roadway is taking every other pole, so it's not as noticeable," Brown said. "They sort of are very meticulous in the way that they are doing it."
City officials have received reports that the thieves are using traffic cones while they are at work, giving passing motorists the impression that legitimate crews are removing the poles.
Poles have been reported stolen from locations across the city, including the 4800 to 5500 blocks of W. Northern Parkway, the 2000 block of Kelly Ave., the 2400 to 2500 blocks of Cross Country Blvd., the 2700 block of Baker St., a section of North Dukeland Street, Auchentoroly Terrace between Liberty Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road, Perring Parkway between Belvedere Avenue and McClean Boulevard, and an area north of Woodbourne Avenue.
Local metal dealers say that scrap aluminum brings 30 to 35 cents a pound. The poles weigh at least 250 pounds and carry 120 volts of electricity, said Rob Gould, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. spokesman. "It's the same amount of current in the average home," he said.
Lynn Smith, manager at Modern Junk & Salvage Co., said it doesn't surprise her that people are taking the poles. "They steal everything here in Baltimore," she said. "Nothing's too kooky to me anymore."
But to pole manufacturers, the thought of someone going through the trouble of uprooting a street light seems incredible.
"You gotta have some serious equipment to take poles out like that," said Steve Friello, an engineer at Flagpoles Inc./P&K;, a New York-based pole manufacturer.
Friello said he's heard of people stealing poles already down, for instance on construction sites. But installed poles?
"That's crazy," said Friello. "It's a huge hassle to take a 30-foot pole down. You're dealing with wiring, live wiring. You gotta unbolt it. You need the equipment to do that. But I guess desperate people do desperate things."
Decker agrees. He has seen people try to sell him things such as copper lines from buildings, lines that had electricity running through them. "If someone's a true thief, it doesn't matter to them, even if it's life threatening," Decker said.