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Whitley worst county for telephone line theft

Thieves are racing to the top of utility poles across Whitley County, targeting telephone lines in the never-ending quest for copper that can be turned into cash at local scrap yards.

Cathy Lewandowski, senior public relations manager for AT&T's office in Nashville, said the thieves' efforts have pushed Whitley County to the top of a dubious list, ranking first in the number of phone line thefts among Kentucky's 120 counties in 2011 and getting off to a fast start in 2012.

"Since Jan. 1, there have been nine separate thefts in Whitley County which resulted in $26,000 in damage," Lewandowski noted.

Whitley County Chief Deputy K.Y. Fuson said phone line thefts are something local law enforcement is constantly dealing with.

"This has been going on for years," Fuson said. "When the price of copper goes up, we see an increase in these kinds of thefts."

While the thefts have occurred across the county, Lewandowski noted the areas along Hwy. 92 East have been hit the hardest.

The thieves are using a variety of methods to get the wire down from the poles, including cutting one end, tying it to a vehicle and driving away with as much as possible before the other end breaks.

"On average, it is between 200 feet and 1,000 feet per incident," Lewandowski noted.

Other thieves have developed a team method in which several of them climb poles at the same time and cut down an entire section.

"These guys are so quick, they are up and down and gone in two minutes," Fuson said.

Lewandowki added that the tension in the wires along with the potential for a pole to snap or break, makes this a high-risk endeavor.

"In addition, our lines usually co-exist with electric wires," Lewandowski noted." If a thief comes in contact with the wrong wire, the results could be tragic."

A state law was passed in July in an effort to curb the thefts. The law requires scrap metal dealers to keep records of their transactions including the seller's photograph, signature and vehicle information.

However, Fuson said the best deterrent is the eyes of the public. The thieves are typically targeting phone lines in their own communities. Because of that, Fuson is asking the public to keep an eye out and report such incidents to the sheriff's office. Such tips may be made anonymously.

Even if a resident doesn't know the thief, if they can provide a license plate number from the vehicle involved, it can lead to an arrest.

Contrary to what some may believe, Fuson said the theft of phone lines is not a victimless crime as it may prove fatal for someone who is left without phone service because they were unable to call 9-1-1.

"The thieves could also be charged with murder," Fuson noted.

AT&T is working with law enforcement agencies and scrap metal dealers in Whitley County to catch those responsible for several thefts that have occurred in the past several weeks. AT&T urges shop owners, employees and anyone with information on the recent copper thefts to call The Whitley County Sheriff's Department (606) 549-6006, Kentucky State Police (Post 11) in London at (606) 878-6622 or AT&T Asset Protection at 1 (800) 807-4205.

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