Milton-Freewater metal theft part of 'epidemic'

Officials say addicts sell stolen metal to finance their habits.


A metal theft over the weekend in Milton-Freewater has added to a growing regional "epidemic," law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

A truckload of metal and "hundreds of brake shoes" were taken from a residence on Eastside Road here sometime between Friday night and Monday morning, said Sgt. Tawin Compton of the Umatilla County Sheriff's Office.

The incident appears to have been planned and probably occurred at night, he said.

The surge in recent years of metal theft has matched the diminishing availability of ephedrine, a component in the manufacturing of methamphetamine, Compton said. While the number of regional meth labs has dropped, addicts are selling stolen metal to finance a drug habit in many cases.

The economy may have driven some to see metal as a source of cash, he added.

Stolen metal -- copper, brass and aluminum are highly-sought after -- is difficult to track.

"You see the scrap metal, but if you cannot prove it (as stolen), you can't seize it," Compton said. "We have made arrests, but we're usually only able to prove a small percentage of those."

Farm irrigation equipment often serves as a crop ripe for picking for such thieves, he said. Brass sprinkler heads, aluminum pipes and copper wiring are the low-hanging fruit in remote fields.

Some thieves use a middle man to make deals with metal and scrap salvage yards and others shuffle stolen metal back and forth between Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It's easier to sell away from the area where it was stolen, the sergeant said.

Laws are changing in Oregon to help stem the problem. People must have a permit to transport metal, and buyers of the product are required to hold it for three to seven days before reselling or transporting it again. That way officials can warn salvage yard owners of a large theft, and they can be on the alert, Compton said.

Farmers and others are having some success with neighborhood watch-type programs that include night patrols, as well as using plastic sprinkler heads and storing irrigation equipment on land close to residential areas.

His department has made some inroads with recent arrests of metal thieves, Compton said. "But it seems like there are others stepping up to take their place."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.


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