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Over 100 tons of stolen copper destined for Asia stopped in U.S.

Stolen copper

The big, heavy blackened metal plates traveling from Arizona to the Port of Los Angeles in various tractor trailers looked harmless enough, but they were embroiled in an ongoing investigation by U.S. border agents and state law enforcement into international copper rustling in the southwestern U.S.

On Nov. 13, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said its officers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach (LA/LB) seaport in collaboration with the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Team (LA BEST) and the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) recovered and seized 359 stolen copper ingots, each worth $3,488 for an estimated total domestic value of $1.25 million. The stolen raw metal, said CBP, was on its way to Hong Kong.

The total haul, said CBP, totaled over 144 tons of copper.

Metal theft in the U.S. is a growing problem for local infrastructure as prices for copper and other material skyrocket. The problem of people tearing up copper electric lines, water pipes and other critical infrastructure for cash has become so big that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) proposed in August to make metal theft a federal crime.

The metal in the Arizona case, however, was allegedly stolen from an Asarco mine metal in Hayden, AZ where it had been awaiting refinement processing.

According to local law enforcement, on Nov. 13, the mine’s security had tracked several flatbed trucks carrying copper ingots to a ranch in Marana, AZ.

Copper ingots are unrefined copper that still have traces of gold and silver. Each of the seized ingots seized in the case is almost three and a half feet long, three feet wide, two inches thick, and weighs 806 pounds. They are covered with a black powder-like substance, camouflaging their true color, said CBP.

As a result of a commercial vehicle traffic stop and search warrant on the ranch, Arizona DPS seized copper in excess of $300 thousand dollars, three truck tractors, three semi-trailers, one fork lift and two handcarts. At the same time, Arizona DPS provided CBP with blueprints, pictures and details of the copper ingots including dimensions, weight and mineral composition, along with their suspicion the ingots would be smuggled out of the country through a seaport.

CBP officers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach (LA/LB) seaport, said the agency, located and retrieved six containers with suspected stolen copper items beginning on October 2 through November 6. They stopped three containers from leaving the seaport a day before their scheduled departure and ordered the return of three additional containers that had already departed the port, it said.

As a result of the information received from the Arizona DPS and other investigators in the case, CBP officers initially identified three containers, destined to Hong Kong and scheduled to depart the port within 24 hours. Each container held 60 stolen copper ingots totaling 180. All of the containers had a Shipper’s Export Declaration listing the commodity as “Metal Scrap (Copper Alloy Waste and Scrap)” from the same exporter, said CBP.

Further research by CBP officers found three more containers associated with the seized shipments, manifested as “metal scrap.” These were exported on two separate ocean cargo carriers, destined for China, which CBP ordered returned to the LA/LB seaport for inspection.

In the two containers on the first vessel returned, CBP said its officers found a total of 119 stolen copper ingots and another 60 in the last container on the second vessel returned, for a total of another 179.

Ultimately, the stolen ingots will be returned to their rightful owners, said CBP.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport not only prevented the importation of dangerous products into the country, but also had an important role in stopping stolen cargo from being exported out of the port. These seizures demonstrate the effectiveness of CBP’s cargo security activities, and of the strong partnership with local, state and federal law enforcement partners,” stated Todd Owen, CBP Director of Field Operations in Los Angeles.

"This is an extremely dynamic and complicated criminal case. Our detectives did a terrific job from the outset tracking this theft from its inception in Southern Arizona following the money all the way to the Port of Los Angeles,” said Robert Halliday, director of the Arizona DPS. “At that point our partners at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided terrific assistance in determining the international level of criminal activity involved in this large scale operation involving stolen copper.”


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