A man who prosecutors said was the ringleader of a multimillion-dollar copper-theft scheme was sentenced Wednesday to prison.

Pima County Superior Court Judge Javier Chon-Lopez gave Rene Joe Arbizo 2½ years in prison and seven years’ probation for his role in the thefts, which Asarco company officials said cost millions of dollars in pilfered copper.

“We should not be in a situation where you have to guard against your own employees,” Assistant Arizona Attorney General Mike Jette said at the sentencing hearing.

Instead, due to the actions of the defendant and more than a dozen co-defendants, relations between management and employees deteriorated and the company was forced to spend huge sums of money on new security measures to prevent future theft, Jette said.

Arbizo, 41, was one of 18 people charged in the scheme in April 2013. Prosecutors said he and other Asarco workers in Hayden allowed unregistered truck drivers to enter mine grounds and loaded their trucks with thousands of pounds of copper plates, which were then driven to cooperating metal recyclers in California.

Arbizo and other participants would then destroy any corresponding paperwork to conceal their activities.

Much of the stolen copper was ultimately bought by foreign interests and sent to Hong Kong.

Arbizo pleaded guilty to illegally conducting an enterprise and theft.

An Asarco representative said the defendants were responsible for the theft of copper plates with a value of $80 million over the years of the scheme.

“This wasn’t your standard drug addicts stripping copper wire from a city-street pole box,” said Ron Knight, speaking on behalf of the company.

Knight said the defendants stole the equivalent of 70 truckloads of copper from the mine.

In the wake of the incident, Knight said the company has been forced to institute extensive security measures costing millions of dollars and damaging employee morale.

Knight also said rumors or threats and intimidation were prevalent at the mine when the Department of Public Safety and Attorney General’s Office began to investigate.

He said he began to believe the rumors when the threats hit home.

“I found a severed goat’s head hanging from my front door,” Knight said.

Arbizo, who testified as part of the mitigation for the sentencing, downplayed his role in the scheme, saying other workers came up with the plan to steal the copper.

“You got paid for turning a blind eye?” Arbizo’s attorney, Stephen Ralls, asked during the sentencing.

Arbizo said he and his accomplices started stealing scrap copper in 2005 or 2006. The scrap was hauled out a back gate of the mine complex.

Later, another defendant said they could steal large volumes of prepared copper plates.

Arbizo also downplayed the amount of money he made in the scheme, saying most of the cash went to pay for living expenses and those of his parents and in-laws.

Under cross-examination, he denied telling Jette in past interviews that he made tens of thousands of dollars with each load of purloined copper.

“You didn’t tell me you got paid $80,000 each time?” Jette asked.

Arbizo said that wasn’t true.

Jette argued that Arbizo and the others were motivated by greed, despite earning generous salaries.

Arbizo was paid $80,000 per year for his work as a supervisor at the mine.

Other defendants have been sentenced to probation in the case, including Gene Carlo Garcia and Chun Chen Pedroza.

Avelino Rubal and Robert Elkins are scheduled for sentencing in June.

Marcos Gallego will face trial next January.

Charges against nine other defendants have been dismissed.

Two other defendants live outside of the country and have warrants pending.

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @pm929.