SALT LAKE CITY — The biggest copper heist in Utah memory has stripped more than six miles of wire from a stretch of Salt Lake City highway.
The Utah Department of Transportation first noticed the theft Thursday, officials said, but they don't know when exactly thieves snatched up the wire. The thieves either disguised themselves as a construction crew or worked in the middle of the night on multiple occasions to yank wire from the median of Interstate 15, said roadway lighting engineer Richard Hibbard.
"We can't keep wire in the ground to save our lives," he said, estimating that the department deals with smaller-scale thefts nearly every week. Thieves take the wire to recyclers who will pay for metal by the pound.
Officials are shocked, they say, to see a theft this big pulled off on a relatively urban and highly traveled stretch of road. Billboards dot the side of the six-lane highway that's lined with warehouses, sandy dirt and red rock.
"To say the least, this was an extremely risky operation that they pulled off here," said UDOT spokesman John Gleason, adding, "This is by far the largest single copper wire theft we've dealt with here in Utah."
The department doesn't know exactly when the theft happened because many highway lights all over the Wasatch Valley haven't been working. Routine road maintenance in the area is falling to the wayside as workers grapple to replace the missing wire and broken metal boxes.
The thieves likely used sledgehammers to smash into boxes of wires running to light poles, clipped the copper and then used cars or trucks to pull 30,000 to 35,000 feet of wire out of the ground, authorities said. The scale of the heist, they said, indicates that the thieves had sophisticated electrical know-how.
They snuffed out almost a dozen light poles along a mile of highway between 1000 North and 1800 North, toward the outer limits of Salt Lake City. The missing coiled wire will cost between $50,000 and $60,000 to replace, officials say.
UDOT spends $300,000 to $400,000 a year to replace stolen copper, officials said. To combat the thefts, the department is considering replacing the copper wire with aluminum wire, which proves less lucrative at recycling sites. But aluminum tends to short out more easily. Engineers are also working on a plan to bury light boxes along the road underground to make them harder to find.
A few years ago, "when the recession hit, it got really bad," Hibbard said, adding that the rate of thefts seemed to climb alongside unemployment rates.
With other similar cases in Utah, officials sometimes find car or bicycle tire tracks. That was the case for one recent, smaller theft about a mile south of this one.
But the department has not found such signs in this heist, said Hibbard, the lighting engineer.
"The most evidence I've seen is those beer bottles over there," he said, adding, "That's the curiosity. It seems impossible that someone didn't see something and say something."
At trade-in sites, it's hard for workers to distinguish thieves from electricians. Wire from highway lighting looks pretty much the same as demolition scrap, said Mark Lewon, president of Utah Metal Works in Salt Lake City. Electricians, he said, routinely turn in up to a few thousand pounds of copper wire.
"Unless they're wearing a sign that says they're a thief," Lewon said, there's no way to tell if the metal is stolen.
In total, the wire stolen in this heist could return between $5,200 and $9,000, according to rates offered by Lewon.
Nationwide, police report a strong link between rates of crystal methamphetamine use and theft of the wire, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Energy. Replacing the wire typically costs three times the value that thieves get for it, that same study shows.
Brett Brenner, president of the nonprofit, safety-focused Electrical Safety Foundation, said thieves are putting themselves and others in danger by stealing wire.
"They're messing with some pretty sophisticated electronics most of the time," Brenner said.
The theft, he said, results in problems that can hurt and kill work crews that go out to fix the wire. And it throws off electricity grids, he said, sometimes robbing homes and hospitals of power for days.
In Montana and neighboring Idaho, police have taken measures against copper theft such as embedding GPS devices in the wire and using them to track down thieves.