Nothing is sacred to metal thieves. They'll put their lives at risk to pull a few hundred dollars' worth of copper out of a light fixture, swipe a plaque from a 50-year-old war veterans monument, tear apart equipment at grade schools, even steal cemetery memorials.
The cash they get in exchange for the metal they pass off as scrap is a fraction of what it costs cities, schools and businesses to replace it or fix what thieves damage during the burglary.
Last year, Modesto spent $60,000 on electrical repairs, most of which were from damage caused by thieves, said Steve Lumpkin, superintendent of parks operations.
Over a 12-month period ending in August, metal theft cost Modestans at least $215,000.
"No one has been untouched by this," said Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who has been working for more than a year on making it tougher for thieves to pass off stolen metal as scrap. Stanislaus County passed an ordinance in April that tightens rules on how recyclers can buy scrap metal.
Various Northern San Joaquin Valley municipalities have passed or are considering ordinances that require metal sellers to take checks rather than payment in cash, show identification and jump through other hoops designed to make it harder for metal thieves to profit.
Modesto, Turlock, Newman, Patterson, Riverbank, Merced and San Joaquin County have passed ordinances similar to the Stanislaus County ordinance.
"I'd like to see this thing get passed regionwide so there's not a safe haven for these metal thieves and unscrupulous recyclers," DeMartini said.
But what's to prevent thieves from swiping metal in the valley and taking it to a recycling company elsewhere?
"Nothing," DeMartini said. "That's why I've been working with Assemblyman (Tom) Berryhill on a bill."
Berryhill, R-Modesto, introduced a bill aimed at halting metal theft statewide. Berryhill put the bill -- which was not as strong as the county's ordinance -- on hold after other legislators attached amend- ments that weakened it and would have prevented municipalities from passing laws of their own, Berryhill aide Nicole Mazur said. Berryhill plans to reintroduce an original version of the bill next year, she added.
Manteca police spokesman Rex Osborn said he figures such a bill will save people money and some determined criminals their lives.
"These people stealing those products are going to get killed," he said. "You grab the wrong thing at the wrong time, and that's it."
The idea in Berryhill's bill is that stricter recycling rules statewide will leave thieves nowhere to hawk their booty.
Recyclers will support bill, says one
Recyclers in an area that already has city- or county-imposed ordinances likely would support the bill, said Keith Highiet of Modesto Junk. Imposing restrictions on one area and not the rest of the state could hinder business in that area rather than pre- vent metal theft, Highiet said. Still, he supports the ordinances, reasoning that stopping metal theft has to start somewhere and recyclers should not be part of the problem.
Parks department employees have a number of examples of the problem. Lumpkin wonders how the sort of aluminum used to make bleachers that students and their parents stand on to cheer at football games could get past recycling businesses. He has seen evidence of thieves going to great lengths and causing costly damage to steal a few pieces of brass from bathrooms, commemorative medallions or copper wire.
Once, thieves took copper wire out of light poles in East La Loma Park, so the parks department replaced it, glued the base shut and cemented it. Within days, thieves took a sledgehammer to the poles' bases.
Torches, bolt cutters, hacksaws
"They work hard at it," Lumpkin said. "I'm surprised these people have the tools to do this -- torches, bolt cutters and hacksaws. It's just an extreme amount of damage. For the metal in restrooms, they might have gotten $120. It cost us thousands."
Modesto is not alone. Thieves stole the plaque from a veterans memorial in Riverbank three months ago, said Riverbank Police Chief Tim Beck. Ripon lost $10,000 worth of wire from one sports park in one night this year, Ted Johnston, public works director, said. Thieves have stolen six plaques from Ripon this year.
Metal theft may encourage a trend of marking memorials with hard, nonmetal material. Ripon is considering polished granite.
That's fine by Regina Goncalves, secretary of Memorial Art Company in Modesto, which has stopped installing the metal memorials it sells because the owners don't want to be held responsible if they're stolen.
Thieves have even stolen headstones from the businesses.
"They were brazen. They pulled up on bikes and just took them," she said.
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or email@example.com.