Copperheads make a dent in cable theft, but need a hand

2014-05-05 00:00

WE don’t need to let the copper-sniffing dog out of the van at the crime scene.

Little strips of bright orange plastic littering the field serve as a kind of breadcrumb trail for the Copperheads investigators.

A cable theft syndicate has dug up and stolen a huge, 11 000 volt substation cable in Mfuleni, on the Cape Flats. With the cable having been buried by City of Cape Town electrical workers with the plastic wrapping, scraps of orange discarded by the thieves now show where the underground power highway had run – and points toward the thousands of homes in Delft and Kuils River robbed of power for days.

Dog handler Dorian Morris spots boot prints near a blackened area on the bushy inland sanddune. Here, thieves had burnt the thick plastic insulation off the copper phases.

Known as “Doe”, Morris is a mischievous character. He describes textbook arrests as “beautiful”; he chuckles about the brazenness of his quarry: “Once, cable thieves actually stole a security guard’s dog! And once in Kuils River, they told security guards they must stop bothering their cutting because they have to work night shift for the copper. They really think its their job!”

Morris notes that the bootprints near the burnt coals have a Parabellum brand pattern.

He says 10 private security guards had been hired by the city to protect the cable; given the bizarre job of guarding invisible infrastructure.

Undeterred, a copper syndicate — which somehow knew exactly where the cable ran — held up three guards, robbed them of their cell phones and torches, and “detained” them for hours while they trenched for their red-gold treasure.

The Copperheads unit is the first South African law enforcement agency to use metal detection dogs.

Morris and his collie, James, have made seven arrests so far this year, and the Copperheads team made about 110 arrests last year. They also closed down 19 illegal scrap yards.

In a flying start, the unit — in its second year — reduced the city’s direct cable losses from R32 million in 2006 to just R500 000 in 2007, and was a “global model”, according to the country’s infrastructure theft guru, Rens Bindeman.

And last year its officers were trained by the Netherlands Forensic Institute.

Yet the Copperheads have no chance of stopping the syndicate behind the Mfuleni robbery, or the kingpins behind dozens of other major heists across Cape Town each year.

Its head, Neil Arendse, told The Witness, “We will focus on bread and butter thieves and the organised groups, but we will only touch on syndicates — we will never get to the high-flyers, in all honesty. We have not been allowed the mandate to do our own investigations — we have to hand everything over the SAPS.”

Banned from their own “intelligence” section, the Copperheads have instead created a “strategic information gathering component” where leads from informants and forensic investigations come in.

Arendse also admitted that the conviction rate for those 110 arrests was “only about 10%”, and offered more than a dozen reasons why.

One of them was because “the scrap dealers have the best lawyers”; another was police and prosecutors not yet properly trained in new second-hand goods laws; and another was the fundamental problems faced by investigators around the world: how do you prove who was the rightful owner of even an obviously stolen piece of copper?

Bindeman – a private consultant, and co-founder of a key NGO, SA Revenue Protection Services — says the partnerships the Copperheads had with parastatals, and the active support it had from a local politician — Pieter van Dalen — had withered away.

Not counting the hundreds of millions lost in total to Transnet, Eskom, Prasa, Telkom and businesses in the Western Cape, the city’s replacement losses were back up to R10 million last year.

Last year, the theft of R150 worth of cable near Atlantis shut down 70 factories for two days.

Now, Arendse says the unit’s strategy was to “disrupt” the illegal dealers and the organised gangs.

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