One man was arrested Friday evening when Liberty County Sheriff deputies reportedly caught him in the process of taking copper wires from a Coastal EMC sub-station Friday in Riceboro.
Danny Ray Rittenberry, 28, of Ludowici was charged with criminal trespass, theft by taking and possession of tools for the commission of a crime after he was caught inside the sub-station’s fenced area allegedly cutting copper ground wires, according to an incident report written by Sgt. Jonny Garcia.
According to the report, an employee of Georgia System Operations notified 911 that an alarm had been triggered at the Riceboro power plant off E. B. Cooper Highway.
Garcia and units from the Midway Police Department were the first to arrive at the scene. Garcia reported he saw a small, black car parked by the power plant. The windows were down and the keys were in the ignition, and Garcia said he spotted what appeared to be numerous strands of copper wire in the back seat of the car.
When backup units arrived, the officers approached the fenced area of the power plant and found that a section of the fence had been cut away. LCSO Sgt. Shawn Fields swept the area with his K-9 and announced that the dog would be turned loose. The alleged suspect reportedly yelled out that he was inside the plant and quickly was apprehended without incident.
During their search and investigation, officers uncovered a large bag full of copper wires, a bolt cutter and approximately 12 spots where it appeared copper wiring had been removed from the power station.
The investigation was turned over to LCSO Detective Tracy Jennings, who said copper theft is an ongoing problem.
“This one location that this guy was caught at the other night has been hit at least three times,” she said. “We’ve been doing extra patrol on all our power stations constantly and they’ve all been hit at least twice — not to mention all of the houses. It’s just unreal the houses that have been stripped, old and new, just stripped of their copper.”
She said copper theft has affected many local developers as well.
Jennings said they are going through all their case files to see if Rittenberry may be responsible for other copper thefts in the area. She added that the department has seen a rash of copper thefts for some time now, and in all likelihood there might be multiple offenders.
“I have no doubt that we have more than one offender on all of these cases because there is no way that just one person could have done all of these,” Jennings said.
“It’s just an ongoing problem everywhere in the state of Georgia. They break into the fences. … They go inside and basically start to cut the ground wire that is made of copper and they take those and sell them wherever they can get rid of them.”
She said copper wires from power stations are a huge draw because they are heavy and would sell for more money.
Jennings and LCSO Sheriff Steve Sikes said the problem is so widespread that local electrical companies have beefed up security to reduce their losses. It was the security system put in place by Coastal EMC that led to Rittenberry’s capture.
Jennings said some of the perpetrators are risking their lives.
“The other night the power station employee that came out with us told me that had the grid that (Rittenberry) was cutting been on when he snapped that last ground wire … he would have fried,” she said. “You can only cut so many of them … and he had cut quite a bit before he got caught there.”
She said local recycling plants, like Coastal Recycling, are doing what they can to help officers in the fight against copper theft.
“They take a picture ID from everybody that comes in there,” she said about Coastal Recycling. “They have a lot of security measures and when they see something suspicious, they call us. But some places are not like that.”
Jennings said thieves could take the copper to several locations outside of Liberty County, where the security measures aren’t as strict, and sell the wire.
“They can take them any number of places,” she said.
Saying it was a significant catch in what he called, “a thorn in the community’s side,” Sikes applauded the efforts of his department for Friday’s arrest.