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MORGANTON, NC (WBTV) -
After a three month investigation into the theft of copper from electric substations a man and a woman are in jail accused of the crimes.
47-year-old Michael Eugene Wright from Cleveland County and 28-year-old Ashley Nicole Dalton of Burke County are facing charges ranging from breaking and entering to larceny to possession of stolen property.
The two were arrested on Wednesday at a local scrap dealer, trying to sell what is believed to be stolen copper. "We caught them red handed," said Sheriff Steve Whisenant.
Six different substations were hit during the three month period, one of them was a target of the thieves five separate times. 16 cases in all are being blamed on the couple. "I didn't do anything," said Wright as he was led to the Burke County Sheriff's office Thursday afternoon to be served with additional warrants in the case. "Not guilty," he said.
Dalton, on the other hand, admitted she was with Wright at the substations. "He made me go," she said. Dalton said she asked Wright to drop her off somewhere but claims she was forced to drive him to the locations over the past few months. "I never got out of the car," she said.
The thefts have been expensive for power companies. Brooks Kirby, who heads up the City of Morganton's Electric System said the theft of copper at one substation netted only about $100 for the thieves "But it cost the city more than $3000 to fix the damage."
In another case, Kirby says, repairs to a Duke Energy substation forced the city to shut power to an entire city street for a few hours while repairs were made. Sheriff Whisenant says there were other costs too. "The time and energy our deputies spent investigating this case cost taxpayers tremendously."
People who steal copper at substations risk more than jail time, say the experts. "It's like putting your hand in a snakepit," said Kirby. With high voltage in many lines there if someone cut the wrong one to get some copper "it would cook them dead in a minute," said Kirby.
Investigators say the arrests do not close the case on substation copper thefts. Catawba, Cleveland and Lincoln Counties have unsolved substation copper theft cases and want to talk with Wright and Dalton about those. Authorities do expect more charges to be filed.