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Mississippi casts net across state lines to catch metal thieves

By JACK WEATHERLY

Mississippi is casting its net wider to catch those who plunder isolated irrigation systems and other rural infrastructure for copper.

Copper wiring became a major target for thieves during the real estate collapse where houses and other structures were left vacant and unattended.

The metal that is preferred wiring for electricity rose to about $600 a ton in recent years, though prices have dropped since then.

Eventually, thefts spread far afield, where farm equipment that drives irrigation systems and moves grain and air in silos is a sitting duck.

“They’re in the middle of nowhere,” said Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

Hosemann heads up the Mississippi Delta Agricultural Task Force. And that includes much of the alluvial soil in the Mississippi River Delta in the Magnolia State, Arkansas and parts of Louisiana.

Several years ago, the task force was set up.

“Then we found we were doing too good of a job,” Hoseman said in a telephone interview this week.

So they recruited Arkansas and about 12 parishes in Louisiana.

The expanded task force held its first meeting earlier this spring.

Its primary tool for its efforts is the LeadsOnline.com website.

Mississippi passed the Scrap Metal Law during Hosemann’s tenure, which began in 2008, and subsequently the Secretary of State’s office made provisions for every law enforcement agency in the state to have access to LeadsOnline, a clearinghouse of information on such thefts.

Scrap metal dealers must put anything that someone wants to sell them on the website for three days after the seller provides positive identification. “Every police officer and sheriff and everybody else can view that,” Hosemann said.

The Delta Council, which represents 18 counties in that region, has reported “tens of thousands” of dollars in losses in such thefts, Hosemann said.

Chip Morgan, executive director of the Delta Council, said that when the price of copper jumped, “we noticed that vacant industrial buildings were being stripped. We were trying to market them, but they were just a shell.” Working with sheriff’s offices yielded nothing, Morgan said.

The market shifted from cotton to corn and so some cotton gins were abandoned. “Cotton gins have an enormous energy requirement” and thus lots of electrical wiring

At the council’s request, the Mississippi attorney general, Jim Hood, met with his counterparts in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama, according to Morgan.

It was decided that there needed to be laws with much in common in dealing with metals thefts, because stolen material was being taken across state lines.

And because that was happening, Hood contacted FBI to deal with what had become a federal problem.

Meantime, the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, the state Agriculture Department and the Attorney General’s Office have worked together in “an overwhelming effort,” in conjunction with the scrap-metal dealers, Morgan said, adding that there were probably 50 local law-enforcement departments on hand when the task force was launched April 28.

“We’re dead serious about metal theft.” Morgan said.

The secretary of state’s office did not have to add staff to administer the program, said Hosemann, who added that he raised $100,000 from private sources to run it.

“This is the way, government ought to work. You get private interests, public interests — with very little money involved — working toward a common goal.”

Chicot County (Ark.) Sheriff Ronald Nichols said in an interview that “I think it’ll solve a lot of agricultural thefts.”

More than 480 Mississippi businesses, among 30,000 nationwide, report transactions through LeadsOnline Metal Theft Investigations System, according to a news release from Hosemann’s office.

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