GermanStar - 11/30/2005 10:30 PM
Given that they stand some 30 feet tall, their disappearance is attracting a good deal of attention here - even as their final destination remains a mystery.
Thieves are sawing down aluminum light poles. Some 130 have vanished from Baltimore's streets in the last several weeks, the authorities say, presumably sold for scrap metal. But so far the case of the pilfered poles has stumped the police, and left many local residents wondering just how someone manages to make off with what would seem to be a conspicuous street fixture.
The poles, which weigh about 250 pounds apiece, have been snatched during the day and in the middle of the night, from two-lane blacktop roads and from parkways with three lanes on either side of grass median strips, in poor areas and in some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. Left behind are half-foot stubs of metal, with wires that carry 120 volts neatly tied and wrapped in black electric tape.
"It's a newfound phenomenon; I have to say we haven't seen this before," said David Brown, a spokesman for the city's transportation department . "Apparently, the culprits know what they're doing because we're talking about 30-foot poles here. It's not like you can stick one in a grocery cart and get rolling."
The culprits seem to have pole-snatching down to a model of precision and efficiency, city officials say. They appear to have gone so far as dressing up as utility crews, the police say, and placing orange traffic cones around the poles about to be felled, to avoid arousing suspicion among motorists.
The missing poles have become yet another measure of the desperation in one of the country's most violent cities. Last year, Baltimore, with a population about one-twelfth that of New York City's, had a homicide rate more than five times as high.
An illegal drug trade fuels much of the violence. Health officials say 40,000 addicts live among Baltimore's estimated 650,000 residents. For at least a decade, addicts who cash in scrap metal to pay for their next fix have been ripping metal pipes, radiators and wires out of vacant houses, and prying cast-iron security grates and downspouts from buildings.
But the audacity of the latest thefts has startled even law enforcement officials. "It definitely is brazen," said Officer Nicole Monroe, a city police spokeswoman. "It surprises me that people would be so brazen as to do something like this."
The police have no suspects, Officer Monroe said. On Nov. 9, a man was arrested and charged with theft, the police said, after he was spotted in East Baltimore with a light pole sticking out the window of a station wagon. It turns out, however, they said, that that particular pole had been knocked down by a vehicle, the police said, and the man has not been linked to any pole thefts.
Some observers here - in calls to talk radio programs, letters to newspapers, chats over a beer or coffee - wonder how the thieves have eluded the police for this long.
"If the cops can't catch guys who're cutting down 30-foot poles, how are they going to crack a major drug gang?" said Chip Franklin, a talk-show host on WBAL Radio, a local news and talk station. "What's next? Someone taking a downtown building?"
But Lynn Smith, the manager at the Modern Junk and Salvage Company in Baltimore, said the thieves' quest for quick cash did not surprise her. "They find any way they can to get the metal and then the money in Baltimore," Ms. Smith said. "They don't care how they get it."
She added that she and other local dealers in scrap metal were "on alert" for sections of aluminum light poles and would not buy them. But, Ms. Smith suggested, thieves may be cutting the poles into pieces, then heading out of town to sell the scrap aluminum, which goes for about 35 cents a pound.
It will cost about $156,000 to replace each pole, the metal arms that extend over roads and the glass globes, city officials said.
Beyond the financial loss, Officer Monroe said, the thefts could enable other crimes to be committed.
"From a public safety standpoint, what these thieves are doing is just horrible," she said. "People want well-lit areas when they're walking and when they're driving in the city."
Pole theft "is a crime," she said, "and we will actively pursue anybody" caught doing it or suspected of it.
For now, though, parts of Baltimore have grown a bit darker at nightfall.