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December 2007

Quebec police break-up copper theft ring
Role of scrap dealers being investigated by authorities

A criminal group linked to the Montreal and Saint-Hyacinthe branch of the Hells Angels through drug trafficking is one of three criminal groups alleged to be involved in an organized operation that stole heavy industrial copper wire from Hydro Quebec facilities (263 thefts in 2006).

The metal, worth approximately $2.5 million and stolen from 12 Hydro Quebec installations and some private businesses, was then sold to local scrap dealers. The thieves netted nearly $2 million. While the metal thefts were the principal activity of the three interconnected gangs, they also participated in selling drugs and stolen goods.

Via numerous raids in Quebec and Ontario, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) arrested 48 people in November and have made close to 550 charges that cover such crimes as theft, possession of stolen goods, breaking and entering, drug trafficking and gangsterism. Among the items seized were 30 automobiles, 240 pounds of marijuana and 1,500 marijuana plants, weapons, a home and $150,000 in cash.

“It’s a ring well-structured for a specific purpose, the theft of copper,” SQ Inspector Marcel Forget told the media. “Copper has become a very sought after material, and we have very eloquent proof of that today. This organization was very elaborate and sophisticated. The cells were organized and ready to do anything to reach their goals.”

The investigation began two years ago. The thieves did their homework. According to the authorities, they cased the installations and cut the electrical current prior to removing the cables. To maximize their manpower, the criminals created several cells that followed a standard game plan.

After ransacking the remote site, copper was then taken to clandestine smelters and brought to scrap dealers in the greater Montreal area. Some sales brought in $100,000 for the gangs.

Hydro Quebec sought SQ help to stop thefts. To reduce thefts, the utility has increased security by hiring more security guards and installing video cameras.

“If you speak to any utility company around the world, they are facing the same situation,” Hydro-Quebec spokesperson Sylvain Théberge told the media. “We have hundreds of installations in remote areas and we can’t have someone there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The problem was increasing, so we had to do something.”

Copper prices have skyrocketed (85 percent) over the last two years, which has translated into an increasing number of thefts, including statues (a two-ton statue in Toronto last December), plaques and roofing materials. Scrap dealers are currently paying between $2.50 and $3.50 per pound for copper.

Commenting on the role that scrap metal dealers played in regard to the thefts, Sergeant Manon Gaignard, a spokesperson for the SQ, said that SQ officers are investigating the links.

“We know that they purchased the copper, but we have to prove that they were aware of the source,” she says. “This is part of our ongoing investigation. We do know that none of the dealers refused the material or called the police to register any suspicions.”

Asked if there are any ongoing programs to bring the police and scrap metal dealers together to help prevent such crimes and to identify possible suspects, Gaignard states: “For the moment, there are none. For scrap automobiles, dealers have to complete a form, but for other products such as metals, there are no regulations. I know of no immediate plans to work with the scrap dealers.”

Metaux Depot, a Montreal-based scrap dealer, was identified as having accepted some of the stolen copper and was subject to one of the 31 search warrants that were issued by the police.

“This is a large scrap dealer and we searched the building looking for records,” says Gaignard. “We know that they purchased some of the copper due to the bills that we found. That is all we can say at this moment.”