Historic sites in California being looted for Iron
Massive iron objects that have weathered the Mother Lode's fires and rains since the Gold Rush are now melting away in the face of more insidious forces: thievery and strong prices for scrap metal.
In the past two years, thefts of iron objects have been reported at four historic mine sites in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, as well as from two historic buildings in downtown San Andreas.
In the most recent incident, an employee at the Calaveras Arts Council arrived at work Jan. 4 to discover two 10-foot-tall fire doors, each weighing about 300 pounds, were gone.
The Arts Council was lucky. Less than a week later, Calaveras County Sheriff's Department investigators found the doors at a home in San Andreas. Douglas Alameda of San Andreas was arrested on a charge of possessing stolen property, and the doors were returned.
But historians, historic property owners and public officials say the problem is much larger than Alameda.
"One person couldn't have ever handled that, and they've only arrested one," Penny West, executive director of the Arts Council, said of the door theft.
In Tuolumne County, authorities are prosecuting three men charged with using trucks, cutting torches and other heavy equipment to take metal from mine sites and sell for scrap in Stockton and Modesto.
Remote locations and a lack of witnesses initially hampered the Tuolumne County investigation. After hearing a report that the historic Buchanan Mine site was being looted in August 2008, for example, a Stanislaus National Forest patrol captain went to the site only to find that "a historic processing plant had been completely stripped of its contents and portions of the metal building had been removed."
A rancher and other witnesses who obtained license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles eventually enabled Tuolumne County Sheriff's detectives to crack the case and document repeated sales of the stolen metal in Stockton.
The Tuolumne County District Attorney's Office is now prosecuting Guy Graham, Michael Streib and William Horton, all of Modesto, on theft charges. Graham also faces a charge of transporting the stolen metal. That trial is set to begin Wednesday.
Whether anyone will be prosecuted for the disappearance of a historic stamp mill from the Etna Mine near Glencoe is unclear. Locals say the stamp mill disappeared sometime since summer 2008.
An archeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the site, said he was not allowed to talk about the Etna Mine theft and referred questions to a BLM law enforcement agent. Neither that agent nor BLM Field Office Manager Bill Haigh responded to messages asking for comment.
Calaveras County Supervisor Steve Wilensky, who lives only miles from the Etna Mine site, said he knows of the Etna Mine theft and that the case is only the most recent example of a larger problem.
"With the price of metals having gone up, this has led to an increase in people simply carrying artifacts away," Wilensky said. "We are an area that values its history and yet tolerates its plundering with little organized response."
Calaveras County District Attorney Jeffrey Tuttle said he was not aware of the Etna Mine stamp mill theft or of any effort to prosecute those responsible.
Tuttle and other officials said one way to combat the disappearance of historic iron objects is to report thefts promptly. Thanks to pressure from farmers, who are also frequent victims of scrap metal bandits, California's legislature in recent years has passed laws to crack down on the illicit scrap metal trade.
Scrap metal dealers, for example, now must pay for scrap with checks and take other measures to document transactions.
Those in the business say it is possible that some artifacts, such as the fire doors taken in San Andreas, might fetch a better price if purchased as antiques by someone seeking the doors for their home.
Yet salvage dealers say they are also cautious about such transactions.
"We require a valid ID, and we try to record as much as possible," said Sean Oconnell, an employee at Ohmega Salvage in Oakland.
Because there are only a limited number of salvage and scrap dealers in the region, investigators and those in the business say it is often possible to find distinctive historic metal items if the theft is reported promptly.
Chris Airola, owner of a historic building just up Main Street from the Calaveras Arts Council, says he now wishes he'd made a prompt report after learning from a tenant that a set of his building's iron fire doors were taken last summer.
"I just figured by the time I found out about it, it would be melted down," Airola said. "I would love it if they were able to get them back."
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