Lid Clapped on Manhole Cover Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles police have apparently slammed the lid on the city’s manhole cover caper.

Nine days after the cast-iron disks began disappearing at a dizzying rate from Hollywood to South-Central Los Angeles, police on a stakeout at a downtown scrap-metal yard pulled aside a beat-up Toyota pickup truck Wednesday morning.

In it, they found what they were looking for: more than a ton of catch-basin covers and storm-drain grates, concealed by layers of cardboard and broken bed frames.

Police said two suspects, who may be part of a larger theft ring, were about to sell the hefty load for a mere $75 to the Downtown Metal Center on Long Beach Avenue when they were apprehended.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Detective Bob Readhimer, head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s scrap-metal detail. “This one ranks right up there with the best of them.”

Arrested on charges of receiving stolen property were Antonio Lopez, 23, and Efrain de Leon Barrios, 19, both of whom told police they were Mexican nationals who recently arrived in Los Angeles.

"(Lopez) said he can’t get any money because he can’t get any jobs because he doesn’t have papers and he has to eat,” said Detective Billy Heinlein, who interviewed the suspects through an interpreter. "(Barrios) said he was at a day-labor place . . . got picked up (by Lopez) . . . and was hoping to get $20 for the day.”

“They were hard workers,” Heinlein said. " . . . You can’t say they were lazy--just not too honest.”

With the arrests, Los Angeles police put the kibosh on a series of far less prosaic theories about why anyone would go to the trouble of lifting 185 of the city’s catch-basin covers--which weigh about 40 pounds each.

Scrap dealers, noting that the metal is worth only 3 cents a pound, had hypothesized that it was the work of a crazed back-yard decorator or a sociopathic kook, alternately dubbed the Catch-Basin Bandit or Manhole Man. The thieves could make 30 times as much legally by recycling aluminum soft-drink cans, they emphasized.

The most far-out theory was that the thefts were the work of obsessed fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon characters, who use manhole covers as shields.

The Police Department’s four-detective scrap detail recovered more than 300 covers and grates from the pickup truck and the salvage yard Wednesday, stolen from the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and the Southern California Gas Co. Because some of the thefts occurred so recently, it is unclear how many lids are still missing.

The break in the case came Tuesday afternoon when two detectives from the scrap squad, in the midst of inspecting Downtown Metal Center’s yard, discovered several 23-inch-diameter drain covers--clearly stamped “Los Angeles City"--in a pile of pipes, bed frames and other scrap metal.

Yard employees, who police say are not suspects in the case, were able to provide receipts showing the license number of the suspects’ pickup truck. The detectives returned at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday for a stakeout.

At 9:15 a.m., the pickup, with Lopez at the wheel, pulled into line at Downtown’s outdoor scale, police said. At that point, what had been one of the Police Department’s stranger investigations turned into what police are now calling an open-and-shut case: In the bed of the pickup, barely disguised, was the cache of covers.

“We saw the thefts accelerating so we knew it was only a matter of time until they got more brave,” Readhimer said. “They didn’t get caught for two weeks, so they got very cocky and brought it in by the truckload.”

City sanitation officials, who had worried that pedestrians could fall into the 6-foot-deep holes exposed by the missing covers, expressed relief at news of the arrests. For the past 10 days, crews of city sanitation workers, who normally spend their time cleaning catch basins, were forced to hopscotch across the city covering the 2-foot-wide holes with sheets of plywood.

“We may never recover all of the covers,” said Sanitation Bureau spokeswoman Anna Sklar. “But we’re really delighted the police made such fast work of it and that other municipalities will be getting their covers back too.”

The last truckload was composed mainly of covers marked Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Southern California Gas Co. Police said the suspects fit a description provided by Santa Monica eyewitnesses hours before the pair showed up at the Downtown yard.

During the last week, officials had appealed to the public for help in cracking the case. The thefts were occurring in plain sight. But authorities seemed to have no defense against the crime wave, since the lids can be pried loose by virtually anyone with a metal rod or a strong set of muscles.

Word of the arrests drew expressions of incredulity from those in the salvage industry, who reiterated that it was crazy to steal steel.

On Tuesday, Don Berman of Howard Scrap Metal Co. had theorized that “it has to be a kook, just to frustrate people.” Aluminium cans, he said, command 90 cents a pound when recycled--30 times as much as scrap metal.