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Two men charged with stealing 4.3 miles of copper wiring from light-rail system

Two men were charged Monday with stealing 4.3 miles of copper wiring from the Sound Transit light-rail system, believed to be the largest metal theft in the state, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

The replacement cost of the 70,000 pounds of copper wire is estimated at $1.3 million so far.

The two Seattle men, Donald Howard Turpin, 54, and Lee Russell Skelly, 44, were charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree trafficking in stolen property. Turpin is also charged with third-degree theft with a special sentencing aggravator, according to prosecutors.

Neither man is in custody. They were identified because of the Gatorade bottles left behind at the crime scene.

The thefts occurred between November 2010 and August 2011 on the line that runs through Tukwila.

According to prosecutors, the two men allegedly committed the theft by entering maintenance hatches in a tunnel that runs below the light rail between the SeaTac and Rainer Beach rail stations. They would enter at night and using bolt cutters would remove the copper wire, which is designed to ground “stray voltage” in the track system.

They allegedly dropped the wire through air vents and then drove along the line, picking up the cut wire at various locations, according to prosecutors. Detectives believe the theft occurred over several months, with the defendants working through the night to cut and strip the wire.

Evidence gathered by King County Sheriff’s detectives shows that the men allegedly took the wire to various scrap-metal recycling businesses in King County, including in Pacific, and sold the metal. The investigation focused on Turpin after detectives found DNA evidence on items in the tunnel, according to prosecutors.

Turpin made approximately $39,000 in profit, while Skelly received more than $4,000. Turpin had a state-issued business license which would allow him to scrap the metal with little, if any scrutiny by the scrap-metal buyers, according to prosecutors.

King County Prosecutors worked this year on a statewide metal theft task force to help pass House Bill 1552, which creates new requirements for scrap metal buyers to document their purchases from would be sellers.

Those requirements include either video tapping the sale or taking copies of the seller’s valid identification. The new law also increases penalties for selling stolen scrap metal. It will go into effect in July but will not impact the thefts committed by Turpin and Skelly, according to prosecutors.

“This crime shows the astounding lengths that some criminals will go to take what isn’t theirs,” said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. “The defendants in this case literally stripped away at our public transportation infrastructure."

“Stealing miles of copper wire must be hard work, because it was the defendants’ Gatorade bottles left at the scene which ultimately was their undoing,” Satterberg said.

Arraignment is scheduled for June 27 at 8:30 a.m. at the King County Courthouse. If convicted as charged, the sentence range for Turpin is 63 to 84 months in prison. Skelly faces up to one year in jail.

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