There are days when you can feel that some level of justice has finally been served. Last fall I was able to experience that for myself.
The story begins about a year ago. During a routine inspection of my Lawton, Okla., transmitter site, I noticed that things were a little out of place.
A spool of 3-1/8-inch Heliax line — stored a month earlier after removal from the KVRW(FM) tower — had been stripped. My examination revealed that the coax had been cut into short pieces and dragged across the field. Of nearly 400 feet of line, only 30 feet or so remained on the spool.
I inspected the fence area and found that the chain on the gate had been cut. Another part of the fence, about 20 feet from the gate, also had been cut open. Outside the gate I saw two bays of what had been a 10-bay Shively FM antenna. Another two bays had been left inside the fence.
Apparently the thieves had loaded their truck to capacity and didn’t have room for anything else.
Help from TV
I made a call to the Comanche County Sheriff’s office. A deputy arrived at the scene to take my report. We examined the area and saw that a truck had been parked at the south end of our property for use as a loading area by the thieves. The deputy took photos of the tire tracks, hoping they’d lead him to the truck owner. Nothing else seemed to have been disturbed.
After I secured the property and was leaving to return to the studio, I saw a deputy’s car about a quarter-mile up the road. They were looking at some five-foot pieces of coax that had been dropped in a ditch about 10 feet from the road.
We talked further and decided to leave it there in hopes that the thieves would return to the scene of the crime. The sheriff’s office would have a regular patrol in that area and keep an eye out for the perpetrators. The coax pieces would not be visible to someone casually driving past; a person seen loading it likely knew the coax was there.
It took only a couple of days for the criminals to return. However, they weren’t spotted by the sheriff’s office, but by a news crew from KSWO(TV).
The crew was in the area talking with neighbors about the copper theft. As they were leaving they noticed two men loading what looked like conduit into their pickup truck. The crew stopped and asked the men if this was their property; the men claimed that they had “found” the coax and were loading it onto their truck. Upon being confronted by the TV crew, the men drove away at a high rate of speed.
With the help of the video taken by the news crew, the sheriff’s department tracked down the men and arrested them. (A neighbor’s son also discovered a stash of some of the pieces of cut line on a field. After the sheriff photographed these pieces for evidence, the radio station donated them to the boy so he could sell them to purchase feed for the cattle he was raising in a 4H project.)
When I was informed of the arrest by the district attorney, I felt a great deal of satisfaction. So many times we read about instances of copper theft at radio stations, and we never heard about a positive resolution. I felt this was a victory not only for the radio station but for every station and engineer that has had to deal with this problem.
Over the next several months, I spent a number of days in court and in meetings with the DA’s office as they built a case against the men. The authorities discovered that one of the suspects had previous felony convictions and had been on parole at the time of the theft. The DA had planned to offer a plea bargain, but this revelation meant nothing would be offered to the man primarily responsible for the theft.
The trial date came. The man on parole was found guilty by the Comanche County Court and sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the station for more than $14,000. At the time I’m writing this story, we haven’t yet received the restitution, and we don’t expect the payment to come through. But we have the satisfaction of knowing the thieves were caught. To me, this was a significant victory in the war against copper thieves. The second man refused a plea bargain and was convicted.
The experience drives home to me the importance of regular visits to the transmitter sites. Had this site been left alone for months on end, as some are, it’s unlikely these thieves would have been caught. I believe in making regular visits to my sites — once a week, if possible. This practice certainly made the difference in this case.
It’s also a good reminder to do a “security audit” of your sites a couple of times a year. Are your fences locked and in good condition? Are all outside lights working? If you have an alarm system, is it working properly?
Every one of these things makes it that much more difficult for the bad guys to win.
Ed Dulaney is the regional engineering manager for Townsquare Media in Wichita Falls, Texas, and Lawton, Okla. He also handles engineering for Cumulus radio stations in Wichita Falls.