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Originally published June 17, 2013 at 9:48 PM | Page modified June 18, 2013 at 1:38 PM

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2 charged with stealing 4.3 miles of copper wire from Sound Transit

Charges have been filed against two men who apparently led a group of thieves that took 4.3 miles of copper wiring from the underside of elevated light-rail tracks over a nine-month period.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Prosecutors have charged two men with what is apparently the biggest metal theft in state history, based in part on DNA evidence from a pair of Gatorade bottles.

Donald Howard Turpin, 54, and Lee Russell Skelly, 44, allegedly stole some 4.3 miles of copper wiring from the underside of elevated Link light-rail tracks over a nine-month period in late 2010 and 2011, officials announced Monday.

Both men are still at large.

“The defendants in this case literally stripped away at our public transportation infrastructure,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said in a statement.

The theft did not endanger public safety, but it did cost Sound Transit about $1.3 million to replace the wire, according to the statement.

Satterberg filed second-degree burglary and first-degree trafficking in stolen property charges against both men last week. Those charges carry a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

Turpin, the apparent ringleader of a group of thieves, faces an additional charge of first-degree theft, which means he is facing between 63 and 84 months in prison, according to prosecutors.

A Sound Transit spokesman said the agency has significantly upgraded its security and monitoring of facilities in response to the theft.

There was very little security before this, said the spokesman, Bruce Gray.

The incident is the latest in a string of metal thefts that have increasingly earned officials’ attention.

The state Legislature recently passed, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed, a bill to increase metal-theft penalties and regulation of the scrap-recycling industry and create a no-buy list of known thieves.

“This is a huge problem in many, many ways,” said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who sponsored House Bill 1552.

But even Goodman said he was surprised about the extent of the theft from the elevated light-rail tracks between the Rainier Beach and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport stations.

According to charging documents, Turpin and Skelly and the other participants apparently stole the wire by getting into the interstitial, an area on the underside of the elevated tracks.

After getting inside using wrenches and ratchet straps, the thieves could walk for miles underneath the tracks with access to several types of wires.

And they did, according to charging documents.

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

They allegedly did that between November 2010 and August 2011.

It was painstaking work, though apparently fruitful: Turpin and Skelly each made around $40,000 by selling about 70,000 pounds of wire to recyclers, according to the documents.

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.

Prosecutors filed charges Friday, although neither man is in custody.

A judge issued a $50,000 warrant for Turpin, while a summons was issued for Skelly for a court appearance on June 27.

The theft did not endanger public safety, Sound Transit officials said. The stolen wiring is meant to keep stray electrical current from the rails from damaging concrete guideways, the officials said. But the damage occurs only after 70 or 80 years.

Still, officials said they believed the incident was the biggest metal theft in state history.

In February, 1,000 feet of copper wire was stolen from the approach lighting for one of the three runways at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

And in April, nighttime events at Delridge Playfield in West Seattle were canceled because thieves stole 1,200 feet in wiring there, according to Seattle Parks and Recreation.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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