A husband and wife are under arrest in a series of copper thefts that left a Virginia electric cooperative and its members with a hefty bill.

Over the summer, A&N Electric Cooperative began noticing that spans of neutral were being taken.

"It started happening in Accomack County. We'd see it in very isolated, low-traffic areas, down our right of ways. So it wasn't really noticeable," said Jay Diem, communication specialist at Tasley, Virginia-based A&N.

"Then, the suspects apparently shifted their focus back to Northampton County and were doing the same thing. They were going out to really remote areas where there wasn't a lot of traffic at night or early in the morning, and would climb the poles apparently and clip the neutral," said Diem.

On Oct. 4, Accomack County sheriff's deputies pulled over Darek Earl Snyder Sr. and Amanda Grover-Snyder at a traffic stop. Authorities said there were several rolls of copper wire in the back of their Chevy pickup. Investigators charged them with 16 counts of grand larceny. A&N commended the Accomack County Sheriff's Office for stepping up its nightly patrols in an effort to catch the suspects.

A&N had contacted local salvage yards, asking them to be on the lookout for the co-op's copper, but there's a good reason that none ever turned up.

"From my understanding [the suspects] were from Maryland, and they would come down once or twice a week and do this," said Diem.

A&N said there were no outages as a result of the thefts—but there was a big bill for the co-op and its members, estimated at $100,000.

"The price of the copper is just a drop in the bucket compared to the man hours we had to expend replacing the spans with aluminum," said Diem. "We had crews that were going out and replacing seven to 12 spans weekly. We were dedicating a couple of crews just to do that."

Like many utilities, A&N is replacing copper with aluminum, which is of less interest to thieves.

While the financial toll is large, A&N is grateful there wasn't a bigger price paid. In fact, when the thefts began, the co-op immediately spread the word about the danger of stealing copper, hoping to reach the perpetrators. "The method used to remove the copper wire from the cooperative's distribution poles is extremely dangerous," A&N wrote in a post on its Facebook page.

"This is a huge safety concern. It could go horribly wrong really quick for the folks involved in the thefts. We don't want anybody to get severely injured or even killed," said Diem.

"It's not a matter of if it will happen, it's a matter of when it will happen."

Michael W. Kahn is a staff writer at NRECA.