Copper Thieves: Justice Failed

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Copper thieves strike again. 12 reports within two days with damages estimated at $170,000. But is it a case of "justice failed"?

The thieves are hitting roof-top air conditioning units. Two were taken apart at the Shoe Warehouse on Freedom Drive.

"We've had seven or eight units stripped here," said store and property manager Ken Roberts.

It's such an epidemic, CMPD put a detective on the problem two years ago.

Detective Tom Geisler says, "It's such an easy crime to commit." There's a low risk of getting caught, and the payout is good.

Geisler recently compiled a list of 400 metal theft suspects the Department posted on its website. He also gave a booklet with their names and faces to local scrap yards.

"The scrap yards will not purchase from anyone on the list," said Geisler.

Despite the crackdown, copper thefts seem to happen almost every day in the Queen City. Geisler says if it wasn't for their efforts, the problem would be worse.

Part of the reason Geisler has such a steady stream of cases -- the suspects are serious repeat offenders.

Two of the worst on his list are Michael Kevin Tall, and Troy Eugene Catoe. Both have lengthy arrest records.

Tall has been charged three times in copper cases. Each time, the case has been dismissed by the District Attorney's Office. Twice, CMPD officers say they found copper on Tall, but there wasn't enough evidence to convict.

Catoe has an even longer career going in and out jails and prisons. He's been convicted in several counties 25 times in the past 25 years. Convictions range from stealing to break-ins and more.

In Mecklenburg County, out of the 42 charges we could research, 29 had been dismissed or dropped as part of a plea bargain.

The DA's office tried using the "habitual felon" law on Catoe last year. They dropped the charge and took a plea to breaking into a vehicle instead. Catoe got less than a year in prison.

In the past, the DA's office has said it comes down to time and resources. The threshold of evidence is higher for an habitual felon case. There's a chance the defendant could request a trial, and prosecutors come out empty handed. The majority of all cases nation-wide are plead down.

"It makes us work harder. There are frustrations with the number of repeat offenders," said Geisler.

He worked to support tougher prosecution law put into effect two years ago. The first time an offender is prosecuted under General Statute 66-11, it's a misdemeanor, the second conviction is a low-level felony.

Geisler says it works to prevent the crooks from stealing and selling the copper.

Now he's crusading a statewide law to create a 10-day waiting period before anyone is paid by a scrap yard dealer. The seller would have to submit an address and wait for a check in the mail.

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