The thieves worked in criminal gangs that used scouts and sophisticated techniques to zero in on their illicit prey, police say. Their target was the hot new commodity: copper.
In a sign of the metal's soaring value, police in Quebec busted an organized-crime operation yesterday that they say peddled more than $2-million in stolen copper.
Organized into cells, the thieves allegedly broke into private companies as well as Hydro-Québec installations. Up to nine operatives at a time allegedly scouted locations, neutralized phone lines, and cut through barbed-wire fences to reach the metal.
"Copper has become a very sought-after material, and we have very eloquent proof of that today," Inspector Marcel Forget of the provincial police said in an interview. "This organization was very elaborate and very sophisticated. The cells were organized and ready to do anything to reach their goals."
Police believe they have put an end to the thefts, arresting 48 people and seizing vehicles, a home, weapons and drugs across Quebec and in Ontario. More than 300 officers took part in the operation, ending in 550 separate criminal charges.
Copper thefts have surged around the world as prices for the commodity reach record prices. Thieves have targeted everything from war-memorial plaques to church roofs and gravesites in the search for the valuable metal.
The three interconnected crime rings broken up yesterday also peddled drugs and stolen goods, but the main part of their operations focused on copper.
Police launched their investigation after complaints from Hydro-Québec, which suffered more than $2.5-million in copper thefts last year alone, a spokesman for the utility said.
The suspects are said to have headed into remote wooded areas to target Hydro-Québec installations. After stealing the copper, they took it to covert smelters before transporting it to resellers in the Montreal area, police say.
A sale could fetch up to $100,000, police say.
Suspects began appearing in court in Saint-Hyacinthe yesterday to face more charges, including theft, drug trafficking, breaking-and-entering and gang-related accusations. Police also seized 114 kilograms of marijuana and 1,500 marijuana plants, and say the drug ring had links to the Hells Angels.