Most nights in Sarnia at least a few uninvited guests arrive at job sites, abandoned buildings and homes under construction with one objective in mind – stealing copper.
Wire, piping, fittings — anything that can be lifted or ripped out and sold for a profit. And their handiwork often leaves behind damages in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Metal theft has become a thriving underground economy in Sarnia, one police and building contractors know all about but have had little success curtailing.
And like much of the city’s street crime, police say, it’s driven largely by people with a drug addiction in need of quick cash.
The thieves are most active between midnight and 4 a.m. and scouting is often done on bicycle. Some pull makeshift trailers on which to pile their haul.
The tools of the trade are utility knives, hacksaws and bolt-cutters and the main currency is copper, which fetches about $3 a pound on the open market.
“They know where they’re going in, they know what kind of tools they need, and they have some kind of plan to get it out,” said Shawn Urban, a Sarnia Police constable and night-shift specialist.
Recent targets have included the Tricar highrise under construction at 275 Front St. and a former plant at Imperial Oil’s Sarnia manufacturing site.
In February, half a tonne of copper wire was heisted from a business compound on Confederation Street. Even the copper flashing on the exterior of the Sarnia Library was struck recently.
But the motherlode is the former Sarnia General Hospital on Mitton Street, where metal thievery reached industrial levels before its demolition began.
One man who made hospital stripping his full-time job, and who boasted of making $50,000 annually doing it, said it wasn’t unusual for 20 scavengers to be in the building some nights.
At one point, crews even established a zip-line to more efficiently move bundles from upper-floor windows to the ground.
“They look like coal miners,” said Urban. “It’s a dirty, hard way to make a living (but) the risk scale is pretty low, and it’s lucrative.”
City police made dozens of arrests and laid countless charges at the hospital, but lacked the manpower to continuously monitor the site.
In fact, after neighbours said the free-for-all in the mouldy and asbestos-filled building had become a health and safety issue, former Chief Phil Nelson prepared a report for council that estimated 24/7 patrols would cost taxpayers $1.2 million a year.
So much metal is being stolen it’s given rise to at least one opportunistic middleman. Multiple sources have reported seeing a late-model pickup truck towing a large trailer equipped with a scale.
One of them is Fred Mast, who owns Thanks-A-Latte in North Mitton Village.
One night in June he spotted a thief dragging eight-foot lengths pipes down the sidewalk at 5 a.m. He ran out and yelled at the driver of the truck, who had arrived to meet the thief. The truck quickly sped away.
The truck and trailer has returned twice to the area and both times Mast said he was ready for the illicit metal-buyer.
“This is kind of how I roll,” he said with a laugh.
Hughes Intelligence is a Sarnia-based investigation and security services company founded by former police officer Barry Bentley.
He said construction contractors have taken to locking up their copper and brass in shipping containers overnight, and even churches are being hit.
Metal theft, which five years ago represented 5% of the company’s business, is now an “epidemic” that accounts for about 30%, mostly through security guards hired to watch over construction sites, he said.
“In all honesty, our presence is the biggest deterrent.”
To be prosecuted, metal thieves have to be caught red-handed, so prevention through security cameras and lighting is important, police say.
Several times this summer contractors showed up at new home construction sites in the morning only to discover all the newly installed plumbing has been ripped out, said Sarnia Police Detective Jeff Rovers.
Not only was the copper long gone, but the basements were flooded, he said.
Great Lake’s Secondary School on Wellington Street is scheduled for closure in 2019, and many officials are worried the elegant but mothballed SCITS building will be metal scavengers next big target.
And until Sarnia’s opiate addiction crisis is addressed, Bentley said, the problem will get worse before it gets better.
“It’s a way of life. It’s a way of survival.”