Action News Investigators go under cover to expose metal theft epidemic in Detroit

DETROIT (WXYZ) - The 7 Action News Investigators spent weeks working undercover in Detroit to expose what's become an epidemic in our city. We're talking about metal theft.

Our undercover camera caught a two-man crew stripping a vacant home in broad daylight. 

One man was up on the roof using a crow bar and a long board to pry aluminum siding off a house while his partner picked up the fallen pieces and stuffed them into a shopping cart.

Later, 7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis followed the pair to a nearby scrap yard and confronted them while they were trying to sell their stolen metal.

On another day in the same area of southwest Detroit we watched a crew of thieves take down several huge sections of metal fencing from a shuttered Detroit public school. They rolled up the big sections of fencing, loaded them onto the roof of an SUV and headed off to the scrap yard.

Metal thieves like these are out working every day and they're incredibly brazen. They're stealing everything from aluminum siding, to copper pipes, manhole covers and utility wires.

The thefts that the 7 Action News Investigators caught on tape happened in an area of southwest Detroit where State Representative Rashida Tlaib lives.  She also represents the area. Tlaib said the theft problem has now spread from Detroit to the suburbs, and even rural areas.

Tlaib told 7 Action News that metal thieves have knocked out street lights in her district, turned neighborhoods into eyesores by stripping empty houses and even have taken fencing from a newly-renovated playground.

"We're suffering. I mean we have no lights. Now we have no fence for our park and we have every corner you turn there's yet another house that's been a victim of scrap-metal theft," said Tlaib.

Metal theft is slowly turning many neighborhoods in the city into eyesores.

A 2009 study from the University of Indianapolis ranks Detroit number two in the nation for metal theft insurance claims. The study's author, Dr. Kevin Whiteacre, told 7 Action News that metal theft is exacerbating the foreclosure problem and destroying neighborhoods.

"When you see these homes that have had the aluminum siding just ripped off the sides you know they look like shaved cats, very forlorn. Who's going to buy a house next to that? You know, who's going to buy that house?" Whiteacre asked in an interview with 7 Action News.

The Investigators talked to the owner of the home on Senator Street where our undercover camera caught the two-man crew stripping aluminum siding.

He said at one point the house was in move-in condition with a signed lease. Then the metal thieves moved in. The owner said the house has now been stripped three times and the damage is so severe he has no choice but to walk away from the property.

The head of the Detroit Police Copper Theft Task Force tells 7 Action news that metal thieves are getting bolder by the day and finding new things to steal.

"You name it, you think about it, they're taking it," said Lt Derek Hassan.

Hassan said thieves are no longer limiting themselves to higher-priced copper and aluminum as they once did.  Hassan told 7 Action News thieves are also taking less-valuable iron and steel.

According to Hassan, emerging industrial nations like China are gobbling up scrap metal as fast as they can get it, driving up prices here and fueling the theft problem.

"So we're kind of stripping Detroit to build up our competitors in a way?" asked 7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis.

"I think you're absolutely right.  You certainly can look at it that way and I think there's some validity to that," said Hassan.

Despite the huge demand for scrap, Hassan said his task force has had some success.

In 2007, Hassan said thefts of AT&T phone cables were averaging one-per-day. Thieves were clipping cables off telephone poles, burning off insulation and selling the tiny copper strands inside for big money.

"Every single night in the city there was a cable theft, and those cable thefts cut power, telephone service and internet service to entire neighborhoods," Hassan said.

But Hassan said his task force, working with the utilities and the scrap yards, cut phone cable thefts to almost nothing last year.

Hassan cautioned, however, that there's still a long way to go. He said metal theft is an epidemic in the city and, in his opinion, the best way to cut theft is to tighten regulations on scrap yards.

"Where there is no buyer, there is no seller.  I can't make it any simpler than that," said Hassan

State Representative Tlaib has drafted new legislation to increase regulation of the scrap business statewide. (You can read the proposed legislation below)

"I really think that some of these leaders in this industry need to step up and realize that this is a huge problem and they need to do something about it," said Tlaib.

But the local president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the organization representing scrap dealers in Michigan, says the industry has stepped up and offered solutions for fighting theft.

"You just asked me, is it a problem. Yes it is a problem. Yes. I'm not going to give you a crazy answer. It is a problem and we're at the table trying to reduce it and stop it. Zero is the goal," Brown said.

Brown outlined some steps his industry has taken in a prepared statement to 7 Action News, including a website that alerts scrap yards to reports of stolen metal. (We've posted the entire ISRI statement below)

But Representative Talaib expects strong opposition from the scrap industry to her new legislation, especially on one provision to ban cash transactions, something the police are pushing for.

"I think it (the ban on cash transactions) will hopefully kind of suppress that quick fix if you will, with some of this stolen material," said Lt Hassan.

All of the stolen metal that the 7 Action News Investigators caught on undercover camera ended up at the same scrap yard, Southwest Metals on Fort Street in Detroit.  According to Tlaib, the playground fencing from her neighborhood was also sold to Southwest Metals but was later recovered by Detroit Police and held as evidence.

When 7 Action News confronted one of the thieves inside the scrap yard as he tried to sell stolen aluminum siding from the house on Senator he denied involvement even though he was clearly seen in the video ripping off siding at a home he didn't own.

"I didn't strip no house," the man said.

7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis told a scrap yard employee that he had watched the man and his partner strip the siding off a vacant house. The employee at Southwest Metals refused to buy the material and told the men to leave.

According to court records, the owner of Southwest Metals, Joe Fawaz, has had at least one run-in with Detroit police.

Fawaz was charged last November with three misdemeanors counts under current city and state scrap metal laws for failing to keep proper records on metal purchases. Fawaz pleaded not guilty and has a court hearing scheduled for next month.

Representative Talaib has finished drafting her new legislation and is expected to introduce the bill soon.

Scrap Legislation ISRI

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