The Tucson Police Department cracked down on an Arizona metal recycling business
in late August for accepting stolen vehicles and ATM machines, arresting four people.

After a three-month undercover operation, authorities arrested Sims Metal
Management employees Cesar Tovar, 58, Hector Fuentes, 52, Marco Acuna, 40, and
Salvador Hernandez-Perez, 23, charging each with one count of operating a chop shop.

The department first warned Sims Metal Management about accepting suspicious
items in 2007, and investigators later found illegal activity still taking place, leading to a sting operation that began in May, said Sgt. James
Wakefield, supervisor of the department’s auto theft detail.

Wakefield said any “reasonable person” would’ve noticed something wasn’t
right with the undercover deliveries.

Some of the vehicles had screwdrivers sticking out of the ignition, and ATMs
had been busted open – tell-tale signs of theft, he said.

“The undercover officer would say, ‘The shell needs to be destroyed. It’s
hot,” Wakefield said officers told the suspects. “We were getting progressively
bolder.”

At first, officers brought in gutted vehicles with no transmission or
engines.

As the case went on, the condition of the vehicles got “progressively better”
with everything in tact, Wakefield said.

Overall, more than 15 loads of simulated stolen products – safes, wire and 11
vehicles – were purchased from undercover operatives.

“We wanted to mix it up and include other types of property that would
indicate criminal activity,” Wakefield said.

The Tucson location is one of more than 250 Sims Metal Managment facilities
around the world. The New York-based company employs more than 6,000. Sims Metal Management spokesman Daniel Strechay said the company is cooperating with
authorities.

The Tucson business was closed for several hours on Aug. 24 while
investigators surveyed the property, but it has since resumed normal operations.

“The issue of metal theft is not one we take lightly,” Strechay said in a
statement. “Our commitment to the community and to the highest ethical standards
has helped Sims Metal Management become the world’s leading metal and
electronics recycler. We value our role as a respected member of the community
and we will continue to do all in our power to retain that respect.”

Police say the sting operation could help reduce Tucson’s stolen vehicle
cases, which rank among the highest in the nation.

In 2010, 4,200 thefts were reported in Tucson, and its 428.46 theft rate per
100,000 people placed it at No. 22 on The National Insurance Crime Bureau’s “Hot
Spots” list.

Arizona ranked fourth in the U.S. in 2009 in thefts per capita with 25,986
and seventh overall in total reports. That number dropped 30% from 2008,
according to the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority.

The vehicles officers brought in were registered as stolen on a database that
employees are required to check by law. The employees also failed to obtain
vehicle titles or destruction orders, Wakefield said.

The location drew police attention in March while they were investigating the
thefts of dozens of cars in the Tucson area. Suspects in those cases
consistently said they took the vehicles to Sims to get them chopped.

Wakefield said at least 12 stolen vehicles were taken to Sims between
December and March.

The department worked with several agencies, including the Arizona Attorney
General, National Insurance Crime Bureau, Arizona Vehicle Theft Task Force and
Arizona Department of Transportation Enforcement.

By nailing the largest metal shop in Tucson, Wakefield said smaller dealers
will be more likely to comply with scrap metal regulations in the future.

He said authorities may look into Sims’ policies and determine if management
fostered an atmosphere that invited illegal activity.

“If we could rattle [Sims’] chain, we can gain their attention,” Wakefield
said. “The problem isn’t specific to Sims. It looks like it’s a problem
countrywide.”

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Vince Bond Jr. at
vbond@crain.com or 313-446-1653.

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