One county’s success in thwarting copper thieves
Surrounded by 6,000 lb. of aluminum and steel with a pistol on his side and an energy drink in his cup holder, rural crime detective Barry Morgan starts his day with the turn of his truck key. Beginning at 4 p.m., the 11-year police veteran keeps a sharp eye on farm and county roads eight hours each night, with his tires rarely touching pavement. He works to protect Scott County, Mo., farmers from theft—namely copper wire from pivot irrigation systems.
Before establishing a Rural Crimes Unit, Scott County had 15 to 20 pivot wire thefts annually. “My third day, I [along with teammate Toby Haynes] arrested three guys for stealing 800' of pivot wire,” Morgan says.
They caught the thieves when a farmer called in a cloud of black smoke near where they were burning off plastic encasing around the wire. It can often be more challenging to catch thieves, however, so Morgan found new solutions.
“I had a ‘heart to heart’ with scrap-yards,” he says. “Scrapyards know what [pivot wire] is when they see it, and they need to report it.”
He says making his presence known around the community is probably his most powerful technique to intimidate potential thieves. Since Scott County started the Rural Crimes Unit more than a year ago, there have only been six arrests for stealing pivot wire and no theft since December 2015.
Fighting theft started with farmers taking matters into their own hands. “At our first meeting, 30 farmers showed up,” says Patrick Hulshof, a Blodgett, Mo., farmer. “Our focus was finding the buyers and putting pressure on them to follow the law.”
The sheriff decided it was time to take action and created the unit to make examples out of thieves, Morgan says. Local prosecutors seek mandatory jail time and restitution to farmers, a more strict punishment than in the past.
Farmers in the area see proof of the county’s dedication. Each night Morgan patrols county roads, they see a familiar 3⁄4-ton gray pickup to remind them law enforcement is on their side.
“If any farmers in the area have issues with theft we report it directly to Barry,” says Douglas Beggs III, who farms with his father in Blodgett. Morgan gives local farmers his direct line to avoid going through dispatch and to get enforcement to farms faster.
Since December, there hasn’t been any pivot wire theft, nor any rural crime under Morgan’s watchful eye.
The threat, however, continues to pressure the need for law enforcement. Copper wire theft from center-pivot irrigation systems can be devastating.
For greedy wire thieves, each pivot section yields about $50 profit after they burn the plastic encasing off the 15- to 20-wire bundle. Their $50 profit results in $700 to $800 in repair costs per section for farmers, not including damage to the crop and labor.
Prior to having a rural crime detective and when wire prices were higher, theft ran rampant across Scott County. “We were spending $5,000 to $7,000 each year, not counting what the insurance paid,” Hulshof says. Sometimes, thieves would steal from five or six sections at once.
“If they steal the wire on June 1, when corn is pollinating, and we go five days without water, we lose $700 an acre,” Hulshof says. “That’s how vulnerable we are if it’s stolen at the worst time of the year.