Copper theft a nuisance on Thea Foss

Staff writerJuly 15, 2013 

5/21/02 MOG/ESPLANADE

The view looking north along the Thea Foss Waterway from the esplanade in front of the Museum of Glass.

DREW PERINE — Staff photographer file, 2002

Three times since last summer, it’s been lights out for property owners along the southern part of Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway.

Three times thieves have pulled copper wire from the network of lights along the pedestrian pathway on the waterway’s west side. Twice those copper thefts have darkened the tall, vertical light standards. The third copper theft cut power to light fixtures that focused on the waterway itself, said Lianna Collinge of the Foss Waterway Owners Association.

Those thefts occurred last summer, this spring and just a few weeks ago.

The wire thefts have been focused on the southern end of the waterway where there are few buildings adjoining the esplanade. At its southern end, the waterway is bordered by a park and a vacant building site destined to become home to a new apartment building.

Construction of that apartment building, the Henry, is scheduled to begin in September.

Collinge said the thieves are methodical in their work. As best the association can determine, the pilferers work between 3 and 3:30 a.m.

They spend only a short time at the esplanade. And they’ve spent multiple days getting the job done each time.

The first night they bring the tools they need to accomplish the job. By the second night they’ve cut or disabled the locks on the wire junction boxes to gain access. On the third night, they pull the wire from the fixtures.

The association has installed theft-resistant locks on the electrical boxes, but the larcenists have defeated those locks.

Property owners have worked with the Tacoma Police Department to alert them to the thefts, and the association has alerted its private security guards to watch for wire thieves.

Those guards vary their schedules so that the thieves don’t know when to expect them to make their rounds.

So far, none of those protective measures has caught a thief in the act, Collinge said.

Because the miscreants spend only a few minutes doing their work each night, it has been difficult to catch them, she said.

On the night they actually pull the wire, they may spend only five minutes doing the job, she said.

So far, the rewiring has cost the association some $15,000. The bills for replacing the wire stolen three weeks ago aren’t in yet.

Thieves sell the wire to recyclers, who then sell it to others who melt it down and create new products.

Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said catching wire thieves can be difficult. They usually operate at night in remote locations and seem to hit at random.

The Foss Waterway Esplanade is one of the more public places they’ve targeted, said Cool. The thieves usually seem to prefer less visible targets such as vacation homes, unoccupied buildings and homes under construction.

Because the purloined wire has no identifying numbers or marks, it’s hard to link wire sold to be recycled to a specific site, she said.

“The thieves tell the recyclers that they’re demolishing a building,” she said. “That seems to be a plausible explanation.

“We pretty much have to catch them in the act,” she said.

The department has been successful in some cases, however, by installing video surveillance cameras at sites that are likely targets.

The state has taken measures to discourage theft and resale by requiring recyclers to record the identity and license plate numbers of scrap metal sellers and to limit the amount they will pay in cash for metal. Sales of more than $30 are paid by check and mailed to the sellers’ homes.

But random tests have shown that some recyclers don’t always follow those rules.

The Foss property owners are in good company in having their wiring stolen. Recently in King County, two men were charged in connection with the theft of 4.3 miles of wiring from Sound Transit over a two-year period. That wiring was installed beneath bridges used by light-rail vehicles.

Thieves stole thousands of dollars worth of copper from the Murray Morgan Bridge over the Foss Waterway during that bridge’s rebuilding.

That theft from the lift bridge raised the cost of the project and delayed work.

Some men have also stripped wire from freeway lights in Federal Way. And Tacoma’s old Elks Temple saw virtually all of its wiring stolen while it sat abandoned for years.

Collinge said the association has also experienced problems with the restrooms beneath the 21st Street bridge. Vandals broke many of those public restrooms’ porcelain fixtures. Those fixtures were replaced with stainless steel. The restrooms are still closed.

Homeless encampments have begun using the underside of the bridge that spans the south end of the waterway, said Su Dowie, executive director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority. The authority is considering spending about $50,000 to fence that area.

TPD’s Cool said police community liaison officers periodically visit areas that appear to be budding homeless encampments and strongly suggest campers leave. Homeless people who disregard those warnings can be arrested after a second offense.

The city and courts work with those homeless people to find them more permanent housing and to get their lives stabilized, said Cool.

The Foss Waterway area isn’t unique in attracting the homeless, she said.

“They have a way of popping up all over town.”

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

john.gillie@thenewstribune.com

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