ROCKINGHAM -- Stolen scrap metal often disappears quickly, as do the burglars who swiped and sold it for a quick buck.
But police are hoping a new Vermont law gives them better tools to track elusive thieves and recover stolen property. That includes both scrap metal and precious metals such as gold and silver.
"This is not going to be a magic bullet, but it certainly should help," said Lt. Rick Hopkins of the State Police Rockingham barracks.
The law, which took effect last month, aims to slow down the process by which scrap and precious metals are dispensed with after being stolen.
It says scrap-metal processors -- defined as a person "engaged in the business of purchasing ferrous scrap, nonferrous scrap, metal articles or proprietary articles" -- must obtain and record detailed information about sellers.
That includes a name, address and date of birth along with a license-plate number and a description of the items received.
The processor also must request documentation "such as a bill of sale, receipt, letter of authorization or similar evidence that established that the seller lawfully owns the items to be sold."
Failing that, the processor must report the transaction to law enforcement and must hold the items for at least 10 days.
"It’s really unfortunate that these extra steps have to be added," said Senior Trooper Benjamin Katz, who is based at the State Police Williston barracks and helped
The law is necessary, Katz said, because of the scale of the metal-theft problem across Vermont.
"It really, really is disgusting," he said. "These burglars found a way to make a quick buck."
That was echoed by state Rep. Richard Marek, a Newfane Democrat who was one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Marek said he’s heard numerous stories of gas and water lines being cut as thieves pilfered valuable copper.
"It’s become a major problem around the state for both residents and businesses," Marek said. "This can be absolutely devastating."
Locally, several such thefts have been reported in the past few weeks:
-- State Police on Aug. 2 said copper plumbing was removed from the basement of a Stagecoach Road home in Grafton. Anyone with information is asked to contact Senior Trooper Bryson Lunderville at the Rockingham barracks: 802-875-2112.
-- At the Londonderry Transfer Station on Route 100, someone took tools and scrap metal including copper sometime between the evening of Aug. 2 and the morning of Aug. 3. Rockingham troopers are investigating.
-- The Windham County Sheriff’s Department is probing the heist of a 100-pound propane tank from Peaked Mountain Road in Townshend sometime between the middle of July and Aug. 2.
"It could be for scrap metal -- it’s hard to say," Deputy Tyler Cooke said. Anyone with information is asked to contact Cooke at 802-365-4942.
There have been other recent, high-profile cases. At Bellows Falls Union High School’s Hadley Field, copper pipe was stolen from public rest rooms on July 26 or early July 27, State Police said.
And in early June, the Sheriff’s Department reported the theft of a 160-year-old, nearly 400-pound section of a gate from Burgess Cemetery in Grafton.
"The only explanation is a couple people heaved it into the back of a truck and sold it for scrap metal," E. Donald Lawrence, the cemetery agent for Grafton Selectboard, said at the time. "It just doesn’t make sense to do something like this."
Katz said much of the scrap-metal activity can be attributed to drug addicts in search of easy money.
That also applies to thefts of precious metals. That’s why the new law also mandates that pawnbrokers or "secondhand dealers" keep detailed records of transactions.
In addition to retaining a seller’s personal information, such businesses also must keep "a legible written description and photograph, or alternatively a video, of the items pawned, pledged or sold."
A secondhand dealer is defined as anyone "engaged in the business of purchasing used or estate precious metal, coins, antiques, furniture, jewelry or similar items." And the statute defines precious metals as gold, silver, platinum or palladium.
Such items cannot be resold or scrapped for at least 10 days, the law says.
Katz said that, while some states require even longer "hold" periods, the Vermont law is a good start that gives police more time to find stolen property.
"Our main goal is returning property," he said. "The No. 1 goal of this is to slow down the sale of stolen goods."
He added that state police are developing a database that will give dealers in scrap and precious metals a uniform way to report their transactions.
Without that information, metal thefts are "difficult to follow up on," Hopkins said.
He noted that the Rockingham barracks is seeing a decrease in such thefts compared with last fall, when the pace was "frenetic." But Hopkins knows that could change quickly.
"There are a ton of variables. Obviously, the price of metal fluctuates," he said. "They’re also crimes of opportunity. The people we pick up, they’re not doing this every day."