Man accused of stealing 4 miles of light rail copper faces judge

Man accused of stealing 4 miles of light rail copper faces judge
TUKWILA, Wash. -- A man accused of taking part in what's being called among the biggest copper thefts in state history pleaded not guilty Thursday while his alleged accomplice is still on the run.

Prosecutors say Lee Skelly and Donald Turpin methodically snuck into a crawl space beneath the light rail tracks between the Tukwila station and the Boeing Access Road, clipping 70,000 pounds of copper wire over a four-mile run, and dropping it to the ground in segments for midnight pickups. The thefts went on for nine months, going undetected because the wire they stole didn't carry an electric current.

"It essentially catches any stray current from rails -- that stray current over the course of 50 or 60 years can wear down the concrete in that section faster than it normally would," said Bruce Gray with Sound Transit.

The thieves took advantage of lax oversight of copper buying rules by some local scrap buyers. As it turns out, it was DNA left on a Gatorade bottle that the thieves left along the tracks that resulted in their identification.

Donald Turpin
Recyclers working with police lead to the arrest of Skelly, but Turpin, the alleged ring leader, failed to show for his court appearance and not been caught. An arrest warrant has since been issued.

The thieves were able to make $4,000 selling a portion of their haul for scrap, but the cost for Sound Transit to replace the wire came in at $1.3 million. It's being covered by insurance.

"It was a wake up call for us that that area needed to be more secure and we've taken several measures to ensure this doesn't happen again," Gray said.

The Legislature just passed a bill to create a statewide no-buy database for recyclers to follow to prevent career copper thieves for skirting the system.

Skelly's next court appearance is scheduled for July 11.