A local investigation of copper theft has uncovered a large-scale operation to steal millions in unrefined metal and ship it to China.
Arizona Department of Public Safety investigators were tipped off to the thefts by security personnel at the Asarco mine in Hayden, about 70 miles northeast of Tucson. Mine security tracked flatbed trucks of copper plates to a ranch on state trust land in Marana, said Capt. Ken Hunter after a news conference Tuesday in Tucson.
The plates of unrefined copper, containing traces of gold and silver, measure 4 feet square and weigh between 820 and 880 pounds. They are valued at $3,488 apiece.
At the ranch, in the 6300 block of West Tangerine Road west of Twin Peaks Road, the plates were loaded into box trucks and driven to a Los Angeles seaport for shipment to Hong Kong, the DPS said.
There are only two facilities Asarco sends the plates for refining - Amarillo, Texas, and Hayden, Hunter said.
"This we should not see heading to California," he said, pointing to the flatbed of anodes displayed in the DPS parking lot.
DPS investigators pulled over a box truck on Interstate 10 just north of the Pinal County line on Sept. 27 and found 49 copper plates. A search of the property turned up another 56 plates, plus three tractor-trailer rigs and a forklift. Total copper recovered in the Tucson area was valued at more than $300,000, said Robert Halliday, director of the Arizona DPS.
Further investigation by the DPS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the seaport turned up another 359 stolen plates in six containers. Their total value: $1.25 million, according to authorities.
Customs officers stopped three of the containers from leaving the seaport a day before their scheduled departure and ordered the return of three others on ships that had already departed.
"Our detectives just followed the money, which took them from Southern Arizona all the way to China," Halliday said.
However, 240 stolen plates remain missing, DPS Capt. Ryan Young said.
Because the investigation is ongoing, Young would not comment on arrests made or the scope of the operation except to say: "It's a significant number of people involved."
The price of copper increased by more than 500 percent between 2001 and 2008, according to the FBI.
On its website, the agency stated: "The demand for copper from developing nations such as China and India is creating a robust international copper trade." Therefore, "the market for illicit copper will likely increase."
On StarNet: Find an interactive crime map for Tucson and Pima County at azstarnet.com/crimemap
By the numbers
weight of each copper plate
value of each copper plate
Worth of copper recovered in the Tucson area
Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at email@example.com or at 573-4191.