Palmetto man charged in $1 million copper heist

Mon, 11/12/2007 - 9:58am
By: Ben Nelms

Palmetto man charged in $1 million copper heist

The current high price of copper has made it a lucrative commodity. That is also the case for criminals, with burglaries and thefts of the now-precious metal at epidemic proportions across southwest metro Atlanta, across Georgia and America. And all too often, copper theft is directly linked to the use of methamphetamine. An arrest made by Fairburn Police Nov. 2 is a glowing example of the problem. A Palmetto man who admitted being “messed up” with methamphetamine and alcohol was charged with tearing apart more than $1 million in heavy construction equipment just to get the radiators and other copper parts. The man used a trackhoe to rip the front ends off the heavy equipment to gain access to the radiators.

Lawrence Fredrick Jeter, 36, was charged with 10 counts of criminal damage to property with additional criminal damage charges pending, according to Fairburn Det. Ben Pace. Jeter was also charged with one count of entering auto and one count of theft by taking, Pace said. Also arrested on the same charges was 18 year-old Anna Lee Wilson, of Whitesburg, said Pace.

Located at a construction site at 8250 Creekwood Road, approximately one mile from the Fayette County line, Jeter admitted to damaging 10 pieces of Caterpillar, John Deere, Volvo and GMC heavy equipment owned by Villa Rica-based Ellis Astin Grading Co., Inc., Pace said.

Company founder Ellis Astin, Sr. said Monday the total cost of the damage is estimated at $1.5 million, including the expense of repairing the wrecked equipment and loss of revenue from down time.

“It’s a sad day in America when people do vandalism and theft for copper salvage,” Astin said. “We need a law to put a stop to this kind of thing where people can steal copper and take it to any Mom and Pop operation and get paid.”

After his arrest, Jeter admitted he wrecked the heavy equipment with the intention of stealing the copper components for sale to a scrap metal dealer, Pace said. He used a trackhoe to tear into the other pieces of heavy equipment to get the radiators and other copper parts, Pace said. Jeter also admitted he had been messed up on meth and alcohol and that the drugs were the motivating factor in the incident, said Pace.

The incident occurred near midnight Oct. 20, when Fairburn Police responded to a criminal damage to property call. Officers discovered the damaged equipment and observed the tail lights of a vehicle on the far side of the construction site. A search of the area revealed an abandoned Chevy S-10 pick-up and Wilson hiding beside a culvert, according to police reports. Officers searched for Jeter, who fled the scene once police arrived, but were unable to locate him. Officers also found a crack pipe inside a pink bag near the driver’s door of the vehicle, reports said. The owner of the vehicle, a Carrollton man, had placed the initial call to officers, said reports.

Wilson told officers Jeter had been responsible for the damage to the equipment and had asked her to go to the site to see it for herself, according to police reports. Pace said that upon being taken into custody, Jeter acknowledged that to be the case.

Fairburn detectives took custody of Jeter after turned himself in to Palmetto Det. John Cooper.

Pace was quick to draw the connection to drug use, particularly methamphetamine, and copper thefts far beyond the borders of south Fulton.

“People need to wake up to the seriousness of this type crime,” Pace said. “Copper theft is very often associated with the sale and use of illegal drugs. Innocent people easily become the victims and a great deal of personal property is lost to a drug habit that is wrecking lives and costing businesses and homeowners and taxpayers a great deal of money and heartache.”

The national epidemic in copper theft is raging. Closer to home, law enforcement agencies in Fayette County also report continuing incidents of copper theft, especially in residential construction sites, said Fayette County Sheriff’s spokesperson Belinda McCastle.

Georgia General Assembly passed Senate Bill 203 in the 2007 session. Effective July 1 and now a felony, the bill makes the theft of metal punishable by one to five years in prison and carries a $5,000 fine.

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