Two San Manuel men were arrested after Pinal County sheriff’s deputies say they found them in hand-dug tunnel they used to access an abandoned mine shaft so they could steal copper from the BHP Mine.

Victor Gutierrez, 46, and Mark Jimenez, 34, were found in the tunnel Saturday night by a deputy who stopped by the San Manuel mine on a routine security check, said Tim Gaffney, spokesman for the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.

Over the past year, the sheriff’s office had investigated several reports of copper theft at the mine.

“The deputy first went to a large, hand dug tunnel on the property which he felt the suspects who were stealing the copper in the past were using to gain access to the abandoned mine shaft where the copper was being taken from,” Gaffney said. “As the deputy stood at the top of the tunnel, he could hear the sound of movement inside of the tunnel and called for additional deputies to respond.”

After backup arrived, they waited for the men to emerge from the tunnel. Gutierrez “stuck his head out of the top of the tunnel. Deputies ordered him out of the tunnel at gunpoint. Gutierrez complied and was taken into custody. At the time of his arrest, Gutierrez was wearing a headlamp on his head so he could see inside of the tunnel. he said no one else was in the tunnel.

Deputies climbed into the tunnel and found Jimenez.

The men are suspected of damaging and removing more than $10,000 worth of copper. Deputies and property crime detectives recovered several 30-foot-long sections of copper wire which weighed approximately 500 pounds.

Both men admitted to stealing large quantities of copper during the past year, Gaffney said. “The suspects said they would steal the copper and either burn off or strip the plastic coating on the wire so they could sell it in Tucson.”

The men were booked into the Pinal County jail on suspicion of trafficking in stolen property, burglary, aggravated criminal damage and possession of burglary tools.

Senior Editor, News, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Az.