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Metal theft a major problem in Newton County
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 Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series exploring the theft of scrap metal in Newton County. For part two, see the Sunday edition of the Covington News.

When metal thieves come in the middle of the night to gut a house of its copper, the damage they cause can cost hundreds of times more than the worth of the metal they've stolen.

Newton County home builder RJ Madden is all too familiar with this frustrating reality.

In this past week, thieves caused damage estimated at more than $10,000 to three of Madden's homes.

"It's horrible," he said. He described how the perpetrators had taken or gutted the air conditioning and heater units, stripped the copper wiring from the walls, taken the toilets and shot an arrow through the wall for good measure. "It seemed senseless," he said. "How can people be doing this damage for such a negligible amount of copper?"

 In the past six months, Madden, who has construction going on in seven subdivisions mostly in the county, has been hit with $40,000 in damages.

Home owners and builders like Madden have faced a steady barrage of such thefts as the price of scrap metals such as copper have risen in the last several years in a scrap metals market heated by the voracious demand of developing nations.

The recent downturn in the housing market and the economy may have lessened the U.S. demand for scrap metal slightly, but it has also created more situations where people would consider stealing. The slow housing market also means more opportunities for thieves as new homes sit vacant longer and foreclosed homes are left unoccupied.

Builder Alan Freeman has been hit three times since Thanksgiving, with one of his homes being hit twice. "They probably didn't get $10 for it at the recycle center," he said. "I would rather give them the cash and tell them to go their way than to take my stuff."

The total cost of such damages in the state and country is hard to track, and insurance companies are reluctant to share figures on such claims. Zurich Insurance, which underwrites builder's risk insurance among its insurance products, was not willing to give out the numbers of claims from metal losses.

Even though most builders have insurance, many builders, especially smaller businesses, will often just fix the damage and just take the expense out of pocket, said Andrea Hammond, Executive Director of the Newton County Home Builder's Association.

Madden said the individual home damages did not exceed the deductible for his insurance to kick in. He was also wary of the premium increasing if he did file a claim.

Porterdale home owner Tami Moody was building her new house when thieves caused $1,700 of damage stealing metal. She thought she would be covered by the builder's risk insurance only to find out it only covered vandalism and not theft.

Builder Steve DuBois has taken the extra step of randomly patrolling his developments at night, even staying overnight in them.

"Nobody knows which nights I'm there and at which hours," said the dedicated small business owner. "I'll camouflage and hide my vehicle." He said he caught two people in a Walton County development during his patrols.

A recent change in state laws allowed him to claim restitution of the total cost of the damage, not just the cost of the metals, from another person that was caught and convicted of theft in Walton County.

In the past couple years, the Covington Police Department has been enforcing the state laws regulating the operation of metal recyclers more strictly, allowing Newton County law enforcement to successfully make arrests and solve cases, said Covington Detective Daniel Seals.