California's largest phone companies say thieves posing as workers are crawling into manholes and scaling telephone poles throughout Southern California to steal active copper phone wires, leaving thousands of customers without phone service.
The phone companies, Verizon Communications and Pacific Bell, have been hit nine times in two months by burglars, who carried off thousands of feet of phone cables weighing thousands of pounds. Investigators believe the thieves are selling the copper wiring to scrap yards.
The most recent incidents occurred Sunday in Bel-Air and Monday in Arcadia, prompting both phone companies to publicize the spate of crimes this week. Verizon and PacBell have offered rewards of $10,000 to anyone who provides information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the suspects.
In Bel-Air, thieves removed a manhole cover in the middle of Beverly Glen Boulevard, a busy street even after 10 p.m. They cut a 750-foot underground cable and pulled 30 feet of the cable out of an underground vault before abandoning the effort, according to Verizon. The cut left about 900 customers without phone service for at least a day.
PacBell said burglars carried away 1,000 feet of cable in Arcadia on Monday, disrupting phone service for up to 2,100 customers.
"What's obvious is that some of these people have the equipment needed to cut and to haul away this telephone cable, which is very heavy," said John Britton, spokesman for PacBell.
So far, investigators have no leads. "No one's seen anything," said Jerry Uhler, an investigator with Verizon.
A similar incident in March, however, has provided some clues on how the recent crimes may have been carried out.
On March 29, a trio of would-be cable-thieves inadvertently triggered a moisture alarm in a PacBell vault in Placentia and were arrested, said Placentia Police Det. Corinne Loomis.
Rene Sevilla, 25, and James Guerrero and Michael Bazaldua, both 26, pleaded guilty in May to attempted grand theft and were sentenced to three years' probation.
The three had set up road cones and had stolen a trailer with a flashing directional arrow to appear like a legitimate road crew, Loomis said. They even fooled a police officer who checked on them three hours before the alarm went off.
Sevilla worked for the city of La Mirada and knew how to close lanes of traffic. Bazaldua worked for a construction company in Lake Forest, and had stolen some of its heavy equipment, officials said. Bazaldua told police he planned to sell the copper wire at a scrap metal yard.
Insulated copper wiring like that involved in the phone company cases can fetch from 10 cents to 35 cents per pound, according to a quick survey of area scrap yards. The recycling companies pay up to 60 cents per pound for pure copper wiring with no insulation.