Thieves turn lights off in Rio Communities

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More than a half a dozen light poles in the city of Rio Communities were vandalized last week, leaving sheriff's deputies looking for copper thieves.

Valencia County Sheriff's Capt. Gary Hall said a PNM employee had driven through Rio Communities on N.M. 47 on the evening of Jan. 2 and said everything was fine. But the next night, the same employee realized that eight light poles weren't working.

"When he stopped to check, he noticed the copper wire was pulled from each of the eight poles," Hall said. "We believe the poles are the property of PNM."

Hall said there are no suspects in the case and nothing about the investigation enlightens them of any possible suspect information.

"We'll look at the copper recyclers in the area and see what we come up with," Hall said. "We've been told it's about a $3,000 to $5,000 fix."

Hall said there have been a lot of copper thefts throughout the county, most recently in El Cerro where copper wire was taken from a generator owned by PNM.

Rio Communities Councilor Frank Stasi said because the city doesn't have a full-time police department, they have to rely on a short-handed sheriff's department for police protection. He said while the city appreciates what they can get at the moment, he feels that the thieves know they can get away with crimes in the county's newest city.

"They're getting sophisticated, and there's really nothing we can do until we get a full-time police department.

"We're just livid," Stasi said about the light poles. "Something has to be done."

Stasi, along with other Rio Communities residents and the Rio Communities Association, have raised a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the copper theft. Anyone who would like to contribute to the fund can contact RCA at 861-0090.

Susan Sponar, a spokeswoman for PNM, said while they don't have a firm date when the company will fix the light poles, they are working with Valencia County to get authorization to get them fixed.

She said while copper theft is rampant in New Mexico and across the nation, PNM reported a total of six thefts in 2013 in Valencia County.

"That's actually a small number relative to Albuquerque," Sponar said. "But we are seeing it in other communities."

In an effort to stop, or at least slow down the number of copper theft incidents, Sponar said PNM has donated a total of $20,000 to Albuquerque Crime Stoppers for a reward for people who call and anonymously report copper thefts. Sponar said each individual will receive $500 for those arrested and convicted.

"There are several issues associated with it," Sponar said, "one, which is obviously a safety issue, the darkened streetlights, but also, if people steal copper from energized electric equipment, such as a transformer, that exposes anyone from the public to risk."

She also said it's a potential hazard to utility workers, not to mention the cost to the victims.

"Businesses and people could end up with thousands of dollars in repair costs and lost business days," she said. "That's why we offered that reward. We are hoping people will take notice."


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.