Raiding the dodgy scrap dealers

2014-05-15 00:00

SAM Koopman shrugs when stolen city cable is found at his small scrap dealership.

Lounging in a garden chair outside his shop — visibly unconcerned as police raid his warehouse — he tells The Witness, “Was it stolen, really? I didn’t know that.”

And when he is told the theft of this 30 kg of street light cable plunged a highway area into darkness — and will cost the city R80 000 to replace — Koopman doesn’t express regret.

Instead, he is outraged that it is being confiscated, “Now I am out R1 000.”

Finding stolen copper is the easy part for investigators.

When The Witness joined a “disruptive operation” of three randomly chosen scrap dealers in Cape Town, we found stolen infrastructure at all three.

Meanwhile, in KZN, private investigator Jan Wolmarans “guarantees” that stolen cable can be found among the queues of sellers outside every major scrap dealer, every Monday morning.

A security official with Re­clam — a major licensed franchise in Durban — confirmed that at least one of their branches identified looted cable every day.

The hard parts, experts agree, are proving who the rightful owner is, proving the person in possession actually stole it, and linking the theft to the kingpin behind it.

For Wolmarans — who works for Eskom and Transnet in KZN — this means either catching crews at the scene of the theft, or infiltrating those crews in order to nail the scrap dealers paying them.

But in Cape Town, the Copperheads hope that regular raids, fines and arrests — even with a less than 10% conviction rate — will prove so annoying to scrap dealers that they will stop buying stolen copper.

Six officers and a copper-sniffing police dog gather at two unmarked bakkies outside the Copperheads’ Kuils River headquarters for a “disruptive operation”. Cable theft guru Rens Bindeman — who helped found the Copperheads — joins the team.

At Easy Scrap in Kuils River, the scene is typical: a car-sized weighing scale near the entrance; a bus-sized rack of steel “ferrous” scrap alongside; stacks of old wheelbarrows, car parts and bicycles behind; and rows of dead electrical gadgets on the wall shelves.

The sound of clanging metal echoes through the buildings as the Copperheads rummage through the steel bins; eyes peeled for flashes of either blushing gold colours, or dull green — uninsulated copper that’s been stained by oxidation.

But Bindeman walks straight to the back room, where the precious non-ferrous scrap is supposed to be kept — copper, aluminium and anything else that doesn’t rust, or react to magnets.

In terms of the new law, dealers must take the ID details of everyone selling copper, and hold the material for seven days before exporting it, smelting it or selling it on. Bindeman notes that Easy Scrap only has five bins, marked with the days of the business week — filled with house wire; fridge motors; plumbing pipes.

“Where is Saturday and Sunday?” he asks. “There is a lot here that’s wrong.”

But the illegal wire is found in the manager’s office itself — a thick loop of “shiny bright” copper in a plastic shopping bag against a wall.

Bindeman says, “It looks like stripped street light cable — definitely stolen.”

Morris asks the shift supervisor, “Weet jy nie dat hierdie was gesteel?”(“Don’t you know this was stolen?”)

The man says, “No, a guy sold it to us as offcuts. I think he said he works with an electrician.”

“How much did you pay him?”

The supervisor replies, “We pay R40 per kilo.”

Morris weighs the bag on the big scale: 12,9 kg. He re-weighs it on a smaller scale — and registers 13,1 kg.

Bindeman sighs, “Hierdie skaal is gekroek, man!” (“This scale is rigged, man.”)

Making a note to check the seller’s ID details, the team confiscates the street light cable and moves on.

The two vehicles park next to Koopman’s “bucket shop” residential scrap dealer in a dead-end street in Phillipi township. Bindeman looks up and down the main street behind, unhappy. “They shouldn’t park like this — there’s no escape if there’s an ambush.”

Dressed in a  T-shirt and hat, Koopman and his two staff members are apparently so used to “inspections” that they don’t bother to get up.

It takes the officers one minute to find a bale of stolen street light cable.

It’s dull green, rather than the shiny strawberry-blonde colour at Easy Scrap.

One officer indicates that it’s “impossible” to know where it came from.

Bindeman — who trains police units — shakes his head sorrowfully, and explains to the officer, “Okay, just look at the clues — it’s green, so you know it’s exposed cable that’s been close to the sea somewhere. Look at how the cable is bent near the cut ends — it’s been hacked off, which means it was illegally cut; these aren’t offcuts. And it’s 11 KV wire, which means it belongs to Eskom or the City of Cape Town.”

The head of the team, Inspector Peter Lourens, nods his head, “Ja, we’ve had some overhead cable cut along the N7 [highway]; they’re obviously chopping it up and selling it in bits and pieces.”

Koopman says, “Two young lighties have been coming every morning with more. Said they found it. I paid them R30 per kilo.”

Koopman admits he bought one load of 11 kg, and two lots of 10 kg each.

He says he planned to resell the copper to SA Metals in Epping for R60 per kilo, and make a profit of R900.

Bindeman reckons this small spool of copper will cost the city tens of thousands to replace, and that it may have cost businesses near the N7 multiples of that figure.

Lourens arrests the two “lighties” two days later. Statistically, their chance of conviction is one in 10.

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