Copper thieves tied to phone, Internet outage near Cloquet

The damage to a Qwest fiber optic line that knocked out communications in Carlton County July 20 might have been caused by copper thieves, authorities say.

The damage to a Qwest fiber optic line that knocked out communications in Carlton County July 20 might have been caused by copper thieves, authorities say.

Although no one has been arrested, Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande said he believes copper thieves were responsible for the act that disabled most 911 service in Carlton County. The same cut line affected Qwest-provided phone and Internet services in Cloquet, Carlton, Barnum and Moose Lake from about 4:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. that day.

"We don't know if (the fiber optic line) was cut with the intention of disrupting the 911 system or to steal the cable for financial gain," said St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman, confirming that the cable was cut deliberately, rather than by accident or force of nature.

The perpetrators were down a manhole when they cut the fiber optic cable and, while a small amount of copper could have been inside, it likely would be worthless as scrap, Lamirande said.

"They probably didn't know that at the time," he said.


As the price of copper rises -- local recyclers are paying anywhere from 50 cents to $3.40 a pound, depending on its condition -- so do the number of thefts. Copper thieves are responsible for a number of burglaries in the region, most of them focused on vacant homes and businesses.

The Cloquet Police Department was busy in late July chasing or arresting suspected copper thieves, Lamirande said.

On the same day the fiber optic cable was cut, Cloquet police and the Minnesota State Patrol apprehended suspects they say were in the act of burglarizing a vacant home on Cloquet's Stark Road to remove copper in the middle of the afternoon. Two days later, officers apprehended two other individuals who they say were in the process of removing copper from a vacant house on Maple Street in Cloquet. On July 25, Randall Brothers Heating and Air Conditioning had a burglary during the night and a large amount of copper fittings were stolen.

"They're looking for vacant properties, where they know people won't be there," Lamirande said. "They bring in tools -- sledgehammers, pipecutters that are designed for removing and cutting copper, wire cutters, needle-nose pliers -- to pull the bathroom and plumbing fixtures and any wiring that would contain copper."

Such thieves leave behind significant damage.

"What they need to get is behind the walls," Lamirande said. "Plus, they're in a hurry, so they're smashing and grabbing."

The police chief noted that the best thing residents can do is alert law enforcement of any suspicious activity at a home they know to be vacant, such as foreclosed properties, and get the license plate number and description of the car or suspects. Other sites favored by copper thieves include building sites and auto body, electrical, plumbing and recycling businesses.

Lamirande said copper thieves may steal to get money for a drug habit.


"Unlike some other stolen items, copper can be turned in to a recycling center, [thieves] don't have to find another criminal or take it to the Twin Cities," Lamirande said. "And it's difficult for a recycling business to know where the copper came from, whether the people selling are legitimate customers or not."

In the Stark Road burglary, working from a tip of suspicious activity at the vacant property, Cloquet police detectives arrested Brian Jay Kinney, 22, of Hermantown and Matthew Russell Howard, 25, of Saginaw. According to the criminal complaint, the suspects were wearing construction-style clothing -- hard hats and safety vests -- and admitted to police that they had gone into the residence to remove copper tubing and wiring.

Lamirande said Kinney and Howard also were wanted for questioning in several related burglaries in Hermantown and Proctor, adding that some of the tools the men brought to the Stark Road home were identified by a previous burglary victim as belonging to him. Both men were charged with second-degree burglary and possession of burglary or theft tools.

Two days after the Stark Road incident, on July 22, officers apprehended two other individuals in the process of removing copper from a vacant house on Maple Street in Cloquet.

Larry James Ankarlo, 34, of Cromwell and Nicole Dawn Anderson, 29, of Cloquet were discovered in a vacant home on Maple Street after a neighbor reported a suspicious vehicle behind the house.

According to the criminal complaint, when police detectives arrived, Ankarlo claimed he lived at the home, which he said was owned by a relative. Then, officers said, they observed Anderson gathering up copper that he or they had stripped from the residence. Both were arrested and charged with second-degree burglary. In addition, Ankalo was charged with possession of a hypodermic needle, which authorities said they found during the pat-down.

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