Two Wyoming men face up to 10 years in prison for stealing copper conductor from Powder River Energy Corp. and owe the Gillette-based co-op more than $100,000 in restitution.
The men were recently convicted of charges from a series of copper thefts that occurred over six months beginning in June 2021.
“Any interference with electrical equipment and infrastructure can pose grave risks such as high-voltage shock, severe burns or even fatal electrocution to the perpetrators,” said Rich Halloran, PRECorp’s vice president of operations. “It is truly not worth risking your life.”
After the first incident, the co-op reported 85 feet of copper wire missing from three poles, including two that were cut down with a reciprocating saw.
In August 2021, the men stripped several dormant power transformers of copper. Co-op officials said three transformers were destroyed and about 500 feet of copper wire was stolen. Losses from that incident were calculated to be more than $35,000.
Co-op officials contacted the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office and told investigators that those responsible had enough electrical knowledge to know that the equipment was not energized when the transformers were stripped.
In September 2021, a fourth co-op pole was toppled and stripped, and although the co-op had a surveillance camera nearby, the images were inconclusive. However, tire tracks at the scene indicated that an SUV or pickup truck was used to pull down the pole.
During a planned outage in November, co-op employees watching video of a facility that had been damaged several days earlier saw a suspect wearing a headlamp at the site. Three transformers were gutted and about 500 feet of copper was taken.
Investigators who visited a salvage yard the following day got a break in the case.
Evidence presented at the trials indicated that 13 checks, including nine for copper, were issued to one defendant, and nine checks for scrap copper sales were issued to the other defendant. Combined amounts for the 22 transactions totaled around $9,600.
A search of one defendant’s home turned up copper wire sheathing and uncut sections of wire. When the other defendant was questioned by investigators, he admitted he’d been stealing copper.
Both men were convicted of theft and sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison and 10 years’ probation. Similar sentences on conspiracy charges were suspended, but the pair was ordered to pay the co-op more than $100,000 after their release.
“The members of PRECorp, who are the true victims in this situation, have suffered significant losses including materials, outages, and crew response costs amounting to tens of thousands of dollars,” said Halloran.
Co-op officials say collaboration and effective communication played a vital role in clearing the cases. PRECorp is strongly engaged with county, state and federal law enforcement agencies across its seven-county service territory in northeast Wyoming and parts of Montana.
The co-op encourages its members to immediately report any suspicious activities they see that might indicate unauthorized activities near any of its facilities. Its 24-hour dispatch number is posted and promoted to encourage anonymous reporting of any tips related to thefts or vandalism, said CEO Brian Mills.
“PRECorp engages with local law enforcement to investigate acts of vandalism and theft,” Mills said. “We depend on various sources to safeguard and maintain the integrity of our equipment.”