Nov 5, 2012 12:00 AM by Lupita Murillo
TUCSON - Copper is a hot commodity right now: thieves are ripping off wiring and pool pumps here in Southern Arizona, but the demand reaches across the ocean. Arizona Department of Public Safety investigators just uncovered a major criminal enterprise based out of Tucson.
On September 28, at a ranch on Tangerine Road, DPS officers raided the property and discovered stolen copper ingots. The investigation eventually led veteran DPS officer Jim Oien to California, and to Hong Kong in search of the stolen goods.
"The Arizona copper that was mined in Arizona by Arizona workers ends up in the hands of the Chinese, and it's stolen," Oien said.
This is a career case for Oien, who, in a month's time, along with his partner and other law enforcement agencies, tracked down nearly $2,000,000 worth of copper stolen from the Asarco mine.
"The individuals who are behind this, work within the mine," Oien said.
It was the mine who alerted DPS about the thefts. When they conducted their own investigation, they found some of their copper at a ranch on Tangerine Road.
The truck enforcement squad made the first bust on September 27, then handed the investigation over to Oien. He tracked down previous loads to upland California, to a scrap metal dealer who has connections with a Chinese broker. "They arrange to have the copper put in containers and then shipped to Hong Kong," Oien said.
Oien says two weeks ago, the "Francesca" was loaded with 3 containers of stolen copper. It sailed to Hong Kong where Customs and Border Protection agents managed to get the ship returned with the containers.
"They got the ship totally unloaded and now we have our containers. We open it up, and lo and behold, there is our stolen copper."
That's not all CBP did, they helped seize other loads that were being exported. In all, nearly 500 ingots of copper were recovered, each weighing about 830 pounds.
"We received total cooperation with [CBP]...they knew what we were dealing with," Oien said. "They were interested in helping us out and making the case."
Oien says there could be up to 12 people indicted, and each person is facing at least 40 counts.
Investigators were able to recover 70 percent of the stolen copper. What happened to the rest? DPS says they don't know after it went to China. It's conceivable it was used to make Chinese products that were then sold back to the United States.
Asarco representatives released this statement: "Asarco commends the efforts to-date of the Arizona Department of Public Safety in its investigation of stolen copper anodes from Asarco's Hayden facility. Asarco is cooperating with DPS as part of this investigation."
They also are announcing a reward of up to $50,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction.
If you have information you are urged to call 88-CRIME or 9-1-1.