SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 3, 2013

Manhole-cover thefts inspire renewed legal effort

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — Iron, brass, copper and steel — if not nailed down (and sometimes even when they are), it’s best not leave these materials out in the open.

Three manhole covers were reported missing on Monday, apparently stolen for their value as scrap metal, and it’s not the first time this has happened. The loss has sparked fears of a renewed increase in such thefts.

It is enough to inspire Salem lawyer and media commentator Neil Chayet to renew his efforts to pass legislation designed to make it harder for thieves to steal metal, including manhole covers, gutters, ladders and even public monuments.

“We ought to be able to do something on this,” Chayet said, noting that a recent attempt to pass a law policing scrap-metal sales died unexpectedly in the Legislature at the close of last year’s session.

Monday’s thefts of manhole covers occurred in Beverly, where a National Grid cover was lifted at Hale Street and Hale Park Avenue; in Salem, where a manhole cover with the letters SESD (South Essex Sewerage District) was taken from behind the Salem Oil and Grease on Grove Street; and in Peabody, where one was stolen on Walnut Street.

A witness reported seeing the Peabody manhole cover in a gray Infiniti, its trunk held shut with bungee cords. The cover must have fallen out, as it was found later on Caller Street and returned to its place by the DPW, according to Peabody police Capt. Dennis Bonaiuto. The Peabody thief was described as a white male in his 30s, 5 feet 7 to 5 feet 8, with brown hair and a medium to heavy build.

When manhole covers go missing, there’s more at stake than lost income.

“It’s dangerous,” said Salem police Lt. Conrad Prosniewski, noting that an unwary pedestrian could stumble into the hole.

“And how would you like to drive your car into an open manhole?” he asked. Under some circumstances, that could wreck the vehicle totally, he said.

The thefts of metal had seemed to subside recently, Bonaiuto said. “We had a run about a year ago; it was happening all over.”

The thieves are suspected to be, in many cases, drug users looking for quick money.

“We would hope that the scrap yards would show more diligence,” Bonaiuto said. “It seems to me if you see a manhole cover that says City of Peabody, that would give you pause. We would hope you would return it immediately.”

Large scrap dealers are more likely to reject such goods as being more trouble than they are worth, Prosniewski said.

“The problem is they bring them to mom-and-pop dealers in Chelsea and Everett,” he said. Little record-keeping is required in such cases.

Police put the value of the SESD manhole cover at $536. But Prosniewski believes that for all the trouble involved in such thefts, the metal is sold for about a tenth of its value.

Chayet’s interest in the problem stems from two separate incidents in which gutters were stolen from his Salem home. In both instances, the culprits were captured, but what resulted was repeated frustration as he followed the cases through the courts. He came to believe that record-keeping would help prevent such crimes, and he promoted a bill with the help of Salem state Rep. John Keenan.

“I was told it was on track and was going to pass for sure,” Chayet said, adding that he was “extremely disappointed” when it died.

He can’t explain why it failed and has no knowledge that scrap dealers lobbied against it. Keenan could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Chayet said the law would have treated scrap buyers “sort of like pawn shops,” requiring that sellers provide names and records. They would be asked what seems an obvious question: “How did you come by a manhole cover?”

While praising the work of the police — “The Salem Police did a terrific job for us” — Chayet also suggested that state police could employ sting operations to catch metal thieves. The recent spate of thefts has made him determined to return to the Legislature and try again to pass a law.

“This time we’ll keep an even closer eye on it,” Chayet said. “How about if we get this thing passed this year?”

Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.