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Little League latest victim of copper thieves

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Brian Jones learned this week that Zia Little League had become the latest victim of copper thieves when he visited the league’s baseball fields Thursday to prepare for the upcoming season.

Mike Means, vice president of Zia Little League, examines a damaged electrical junction box at the league’s baseball complex, where copper thieves caused up to $25,000 in damages. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Mike Means, vice president of Zia Little League, examines a damaged electrical junction box at the league’s baseball complex, where copper thieves caused up to $25,000 in damages. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Thieves this week cut locks on the gates at Zia’s ballpark in southeast Albuquerque, then yanked wires out of 10 light poles and destroyed control panels and other equipment, causing an estimated $15,000 to $25,000 in damages, said Jones, the league’s president.

Zia Little League last year served about 450 boys and girls ages 4 to 16. City officials have offered to let players practice at other city ball fields until repairs are completed, Jones said. The season is scheduled to start March 1.

Police estimate that the thieves made off with copper wire valued at no more than $500.

“The damage they do is so much more than what it’s worth,” Jones said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I just can’t believe that they would take that much time and do that much damage for that little return.”

The question is one that perplexes hundreds of home and business owners victimized by what officials say is a growing incidence of copper thefts statewide.

“We see this all the time,” said PNM spokeswoman Susan Sponar said Friday. “Copper theft has been on the rise. It’s definitely something that is happening with alarming frequency.”

A bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday would set new criminal penalties for metal or wire theft that causes more than $1,000 damage or disrupts public utility or communications services.

Sen. Steven Neville, R-San Juan, the bill’s sponsor, said Friday that the measure would create a new section of the criminal code making metal theft a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, for the first and second offenses and a fourth-degree felony for third and subsequent offenses.

Metal theft today is considered larceny and penalties are based on the value of the stolen wire.

The bill will likely be considered on the Senate floor next week, he said. A similar bill passed 60-0 in the House but died last year in the same committee.

Neville said the state’s oil- and gas-producing regions have serious problems with metal thieves.

“They are hitting the gas wells, and not only is it costly, but it’s very dangerous,” he said. “You can blow up a gas well if you do the wrong thing.”

Police estimated that copper thieves struck 300 Albuquerque homes and business in 2013. But copper theft is a statewide problem.

In January, thieves stripped 320 feet of copper electrical wiring from a conduit on St. Michael’s Drive in Santa Fe, knocking out power to two businesses. And an attempted theft at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum disrupted power there and knocked it out at a neighboring museum.

In mid-December, Santa Fe’s St. John’s United Methodist Church reported the theft of 200 feet of copper wire, causing a boiler to break. The damage cost the church $80,000.

In Albuquerque, Los Griegos Health and Social Services Center remained closed two days this week after thieves on Sunday used a truck to pull 360 feet of thick copper wire from an underground conduit on Sunday, manager Mayan Armijo said.

The theft caused an estimated $20,000 damage to the city-owned center, which leases space to medical providers who serve low-income patients, he said.

“This impacts the poor citizens of Albuquerque,” Armijo said of patients who had to be diverted to other providers. “It takes them months to get appointments in come cases.”

PNM offers a reward of up to $500 through Crime Stoppers for tips that lead to the arrest and conviction of copper thieves. To report a tip, call Crime Stoppers at 845-STOP.

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