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Calif. police bust 140 in copper theft sting

By John Cote
The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN JOSE, Calif. — San Jose and Santa Clara police have arrested more than 140 people in a massive copper theft sting after a year-long undercover investigation that also unveiled a bomb-making operation for cell phone-triggered explosives, police said today.

Seventy-four of those arrested were picked up Tuesday in a massive sweep that included Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, investigators said.

Theft of copper from commercial buildings, utility substations, light poles and elsewhere has surged in recent years across the state as the price of the metal has risen with increased global demand, authorities said.

Copper thieves strip out wires, copper fixtures and pipes and sell the metal at recycling centers.

Authorities in Santa Clara County, including the District Attorney's office and police departments in San Jose and Santa Clara, launched an elaborate sting about a year ago, setting up a recycling business front in Santa Clara called Jose Clara Co-op that was staffed by undercover police officers.

As authorities clamped down on other recyclers, pushing them to tighten their identification or other requirements for recycling, the police recycling front soon gained a reputation as a place that would take anything - no questions asked, San Jose police Sgt. Mike Sullivan said.

"Word on the street was if you had anything hot, you could pawn it here," Sullivan said.

Soon the police recycling front had people pawning stolen Porsches, banned assault weapons, drugs and remote-activated bombs, investigators said.

One suspect brought in seven homemade bombs of varying sophistication, several of which were designed to be detonated remotely via a cell phone, Sullivan said.

Investigators kept tabs on the sellers, arresting 68 throughout 2007 before Tuesday's sweep that included 140 arrests warrants and eight search warrants, police said. Seventy-four of the 140 people sought in the culmination of "Operation Meltdown" were arrested Tuesday; the rest are still being sought.

A firearms investigation that grew out of the copper-theft sting has stretched to Carson City, Nev., where it is being handled by federal agents, including the FBI.

The recycling front operation netted 28,000 pounds of copper was since April 2007 with an approximate street value of $96,000, police said.

Additionally, 25 suspects sold 40 stolen vehicles to the undercover officers, including a BMW, Porsche Carrera and Ford Edge sport utility vehicle, police said.

Undercover officers also purchased 74 firearms, including 21 assault weapons banned in California, four guns that had been reported stolen, two fully automatic weapons and eight firearms with damaged or removed serial numbers.

Copyright 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle

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