SKOWHEGAN — Retired school teacher Jane Arthur said she was terrified to go back into her house this month after thieves broke in and stripped the vacant two-story building of its copper plumbing.

Arthur, who rents an apartment within sight of her house on Main Street, said her plumber told her it appeared the burglars used professional cutting tools to take the piping.

“They were pretty brazen; they came in through the garage and broke the locks in the shed — there are three doors they had to break through,” Arthur, a member of the local school board said. “They went everywhere there was copper pipes; they stripped the house bare of all the copper pipes. These were desperate people, but they knew what they were doing.

“I didn’t know if someone was still upstairs or not. I was scared to death to go back in there.”

Police say copper theft and the resulting damage is a statewide problem, with dozens of cases reported every year. They say homes that are vacant and for sale or have been foreclosed upon have become targets for thieves who steal the copper piping, the wiring and other bulk metal to sell for scrap.

Legislation has advanced in the Legislature that would deter would-be copper thieves with harsher penalties for offenders.

Arthur said the house was locked, but had been vacant for weeks. The driveway was not plowed and there were no lights on.

Brian and Allison Keyte at Kennebec Metal Recycling in Skowhegan said on Friday the current price for clean copper is $2.60 per pound. That price is down from a high of about $3.30 per pound last year. Prices for iron range from $200-$270 per ton. Thieves can make hundreds of dollars in very little time and without very much effort, police say.

Skowhegan Police Chief Michael Emmons said there have been 15 reported cases of burglaries involving copper and other metal thefts since April.

He said there are no suspects in the burglary at Arthur’s home. Arthur’s plumber, Jeff Provencal, said that while the total value of the copper taken from the house was only about $100 on the scrap market, it will cost her $1,500 to replace the piping and fix the damage.

Elsewhere in Somerset County, Detective Sgt. Carl Gottardi II of the sheriff’s department said his office has seen 20 similar cases since August.

Three of the cases involved the former radar station in Moscow in December, where a ton of copper wire was stolen. In another case in Solon, a 700-pound wheel of copper-coated steel wiring was hacked up and stolen.

He said police have confirmed where some of the material was sold and there are suspects, but so far no arrests have been made.

“We have had businesses and residences that have been hit; summer homes and vacant houses,” Gottardi said.

It’s a continuing problem and most of the suspects in the cases are people supporting a drug habit, he said.

Gottardi said he has also seen an increase in stolen catalytic converters from automobiles. The converters contain the valuable metal platinum.

In Kennebec County the picture is much the same, Sheriff Randall Liberty said. Construction sites and vacant homes were hit last summer, along with a Central Maine Power Co. substation in Topsham. In mid-July, nearly 5,000 customers were without power for two hours because copper wiring was stolen from a Bangor Hydro Electric Co. substation in Brooksville.

“We had six last month, with total or partial removal of copper tubing,” Liberty said. “Normally the houses are for sale or empty. It coincides with the economy and with the spike of opiate use. It’s another way for them to feed their habits. Some of these folks have an $800 a day habit.”

Liberty said homeowners should maintain activity in a house that is vacant and for sale and put automatic timers on electric lights. He said they should also remove snow from walkways and driveway and collect the mail and newspapers to not tip off potential thieves that the house is vacant.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]