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May 27, 2014 at 11:17 AM

Man convicted of stealing 4.3 miles of copper wire from Sound Transit

A Seattle man faces more than 16 years in prison after he was convicted of stealing 4.3 miles of copper wiring from the Sound Transit light-rail system in what is believed to be the biggest metal-theft case in state history.

A King County jury last week convicted Donald Turpin, 55, of second-degree burglary; first-degree theft with a metal-theft aggravator; first-degree trafficking in stolen property; and leading an organized crime operation. Turpin faces a sentence range of 12 ½ to 16 ½ years in prison, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

A co-defendant, Lee Russell Skelly, 45, pleaded guilty to first-degree theft. His sentence range is up to 90 days in jail.

According to charging documents, Turpin and Skelly stole the wire from the elevated light-rail tracks between the Rainier Beach and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport stations by getting into the interstitial, an area on the underside of the elevated tracks. After getting inside using wrenches and ratchet straps, the thieves walked for miles underneath the tracks with access to several types of wires.

The documents allege that the men used bolt cutters to cut the wire and then dropped segments to the ground, where they would pick them up later in the night.

The thefts occurred between November 2010 and August 2011.

It was painstaking work, though fruitful: Turpin made approximately $50,000 in profit, according to the prosecutor’s office. Turpin had a state-issued business license which allowed him to scrap the metal with little, if any, scrutiny by the scrap metal buyers.

The replacement cost of the 55,000 pounds of copper wire was more than $1.3 million, the prosecutor’s office said. The copper itself was worth more than $200,000.

But the work was apparently so tiring that the men brought Gatorade bottles with them into the interstitial as they worked. Those bottles helped investigators after Sound Transit track inspectors discovered the theft in May 2012.

Detectives with the King County Sheriff’s Office led the investigation that eventually led to Turpin and Skelly, according to a statement from that office.

The DNA evidence from the Gatorade bottles was key, along with numerous interviews with the suspects and their associates, according to charging documents.

The metal theft is believed to be the biggest in state history.

Comments | More in The Blotter | Topics: King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, theft, wire theft

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