Busted: Copper thieves caught in act

Monday, December 1, 2014

POPLAR BLUFF -- Three suspected copper thieves are behind bars thanks to new technology and a quick response by the Butler County Sheriff's Department.

Deputies arrested Zachary A. Hicks, 26, of Dexter, Mo., Nathan C. Wombles, 28, of Fisk, Mo., and Michelle L. Odle, 23, of Poplar Bluff, Mo. on suspicion of first-degree trespassing and second-degree property damage Thursday resulting from an alleged stealing incident on agricultural land near County Road 654. All were booked at the Butler County jail.

According to Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs, the suspects were apprehended thanks in part to a new alarm system that alerts property owners and the sheriff's department whenever an irrigation system is tampered with.

"Agricultural theft is something we have targeted for a while," said Dobbs. "It has been a problem in the past, particularly with copper wire theft. We have tried to combat that with technology and one of the ways is by introducing a system that attaches to the wiring mechanisms of irrigation wells."

According to incident reports, property owners were alerted at 5:20 p.m. Thursday to copper wires being cut on the system. Upon responding, farm employees saw a vehicle in the field with its lights off. The employees told deputies they fired a "warning shot" up in the air and then began following the suspects.

"One of the farmers who had previously been hit decided to put one (an alarm) on his irrigation pumps and it actually yielded two suspects Thursday evening," Dobbs said.

The suspects were apprehended and during a search of the vehicle, deputies discovered wire cutters, bolt cutters and several clips of wire. However, the extent of the damage was not evident until the following morning when deputies documented a section of copper wire missing. Damage to the system is estimated at $2,500.

Dobbs says thefts of precious and scrap metals from farms have been a reoccurring problem. As irrigation systems contain large amounts of copper, they have become a hot spot for thieves in recent years. A theft earlier in the year cost one local farmer an estimated $10,000 due to theft and other damages.

"Farmers are the easiest targets. They might only be at their farm once a month in the winter months. It's not like hitting a residence where there are neighbors. It's out in the middle of nowhere and they are an easy mark," Dobbs said.

The sheriff also is asking other area farmers to look into installing these types of systems. A quick web search for irrigation alarms will provide the names of several manufacturers.

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