As Tommy Hicks rummaged through the charcoaled burned items in the garage of his home in the Cloverdale subdivision, he didn’t think things could get much worse.
Most of his house had burned when it caught fire the week before, his hand and part of his arm had been burned, he spent a week in the hospital, and his eight-year-old dog, Ruby, died of smoke inhalation from the fire.
But things did get worse. As he started to put up the hose he unsuccessfully tried to use to put out the fire, he noticed the faucet was loose. He tugged on the hose and the faucet came out of the side of the house.
Hicks opened the small door that led to the piping system under his house and noticed someone had cut much of the copper pipes out from his water system.
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“It makes you feel violated or makes you feel pissed off that someone would come around and take advantage of someone’s bad situation,” Hicks said.
The Cloverdale neighborhood in Garner has been a hotbed for copper thefts. Most of the homes are older, which means many of their piping systems are made of copper. And some are left abandoned for long periods of time.
Hicks’ home was built in 1957.
The statistics on copper thefts in Garner are unclear, police say, but they are common.
Garner police Lt. Lorie Smith calls it a “crime of opportunity.”
“It’s a recurring issue,” Smith said.
She said often times, copper thieves steal during the day, looking as if they are maintenance workers working on homes. And the crimes tend to get reported well after they occur.
“A lot of people don’t recognize if they are workers or not supposed to be there,” Smith said. “It’s one of those things that are difficult to identify. Because you don’t know if your neighbor is having some work done to their house.”
“It doesn’t seem as odd as seeing someone under the house at two in the morning.”
Smith said the police encourage people to report any suspicious activity as soon as they see it. It increases the likelihood that someone could be found.
The copper thieves typically sell the copper to scrap metal facilities. Greg Brown, the owner of Raleigh Metal Recycling, said it can be hard to determine whether the copper is stolen or bought. He said pieces tend to look the same and there are no identifying marks that indicate one is stolen.
In that case, some scrap metal facilities, including his, have tried to implement procedures to help police build their cases as they are searching for someone who stole copper.
“Every person that comes into Raleigh Metal and Recycling, we will not buy from them unless they have valid photo ID, which we scan into our system,” Brown said. “We also take photographs of every person and all their material. It’s very much a crime deterrent.”
Brown said what makes copper valuable is that it is hard to get out of the ground.
But Brown said copper thefts have dropped in recent years because the price for copper has dropped. The price for copper has dropped because the demand has dropped.
He said he’s optimistic copper thefts will continue to decline.
“Copper remains near six plus year lows,” Brown said.
On a recent afternoon, Hicks sat on a bench outside his home, looking out into space, his arm and hand wrapped in a white bandage.
He, his daughter and his two grandchildren have been moved to a hotel room and are looking for temporary housing until the insurance takes care of his home.
Hicks said he misses his dog Ruby.
He wondered why someone would take advantage of someone down on their luck.
“It made me feel a whole lot worse than what I was,” Hicks said, of learning his copper pipes were stolen. “You try to do the best you can, you try to be a good person, a good neighbor around here.”