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Are Rising Copper Prices Causing the Crime Wave in Bethesda’s Posh Westmoreland Hills Neighborhood?

There have been at least four thefts of downspouts and gutters in recent months

At $30 to $40 a foot, copper gutters can cost more than $10,000 to replace

With its well-kept Colonials, Bethesda’s Westmoreland Hills neighborhood might be one of the last places you’d expect a crime wave. But recently a scene playing out there has been reminiscent of the HBO show The Wire.

“I was staring at the house and it just dawned on me,” says Dana Rice, a resident who temporarily moved out during a renovation. Her copper downspouts were missing.

According to a listserv, there have been at least four thefts of downspouts and gutters in recent months. A family was wakened at 4:15 am by thieves trying to disconnect their gutters. When the owners turned on the lights, the thieves drove off.

Mitch Greenberg of Rockville’s Central Roofing & Siding says five or six clients have said their gutters were stolen this year. “We used to only hear about this once a year,” he says.

The reason for the spike? Bryan Jacobs, who heads the DC-based Coalition Against Copper Theft, says the value of copper has been rising. According to Kitco Metals, which tracks the prices of metals, copper climbed from around $3 a pound in June 2010 to $4.50 this spring. (Right now it’s around $4.10.) Jacobs says thieves turn the copper in for cash at scrap yards, then use the money to buy drugs.

Thieves usually target neighborhoods built in the 1940s and ’50s, when almost all gutters were made of copper—now most homes use aluminum. “Chevy Chase has a ton,” says Greenberg. “Northwest DC, Bethesda, Silver Spring.” Police in Arlington and Fairfax counties say they haven’t heard about many incidents there.

George Brown, president of Brown Construction Co. in Rockville, the company renovating Rice’s home, says a lot of homeowners replace stolen copper to maintain a house’s historic look—but the result may appear even more attractive to criminals. Says Brown: “When you put new copper gutters up, they are shiny and pretty and they look like gold.”

According to Greenberg, copper gutters cost $30 to $40 a foot, including installation. On a large house, that can come to more than $10,000. But many thieves don’t risk trying to steal all the gutters—they just grab the downspouts and run. “The downspouts are the low-hanging fruit,” says Brown. “You don’t need a big ladder. You can just whack them off.”

Churches, schools, and construction sites are also targets because they’re empty at night. “It’s a crime of opportunity,” says Montgomery County police officer Howard Hersh.

Although Dana Rice reported her theft to police, she feels little hope that they’ll catch the culprits and stop it from happening again in her neighborhood. “We’re wide open here,” she says. “It’s like that quote: ‘Why do people rob banks? It’s where the money is.’ ”

This article appears in the September 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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