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Forensic marker dogs on trail of metal thieves

Forensic marker dogs on trail of metal thieves

These are days of opportunity for metal thieves — and California is the Wild West of illegal metal trading. An aspiring young degenerate with a little nerve and a fast truck can turn a quick dollar at pop-up scrap yards that feed Asia’s surging metal demand.

With scrap metal export values hitting $7 billion each year and expected to go higher, theft prevention measures have been swallowed like a river over a rock. Iron, steel, lead, and aluminum will sell — but copper rules them all.

Welcome to the golden age of copper theft. For thieves, copper is the trump card, and its value has steadily risen since 2002, when the value dipped to approximately 60 cents per pound. Stolen copper now brings well over $3 per pound.

The Department of Energy estimates metal theft costs U.S. businesses $1 billion each year. Agriculture, telecommunications, transportation, utilities, and electric companies are cash cows for copper wiring thieves.

Metal theft is ballooning as politicians continue to preen over preventive legislation. It’s not difficult to picture a pompous senator addressing the state legislature in the dark as the lights go out and thieves sneak out round-the-back with copper wiring in tow.

(For more, see: Road spikes nail California copper thieves photo gallery)

Forgoing the promises of politicians, Mick Swindells, a retired policeman from England, has taken a boots-on-the-ground approach to metal theft prevention and trained a dog to detect forensic markers on metal. (Metal theft cost the UK economy over $1.2 billion in 2011.)

Forensic markers, detectable with a UV lamp, are already used on metals, but require a line-of-sight — often impossible in a scrap yard. Swindells, with 30 years of sniffer-dog experience (narcotics, explosives, cadavers, and more) has trained a black Labrador (Jazz) to recognize forensic marker scents.

Within a couple of hours, Jazz can cover a scrap yard and will hit on any stolen metal that is carrying the forensic marker scent — no line-of-sight required.

Forensic dogs can’t prevent the initial theft, but there is tremendous potential to disrupt the chain of illegal sales, handling and delivery of stolen metal.

“This method of working a dog is my ‘invention.’ It came about after a discussion I had with the CSI from a UK police force and I realized what they needed was a dog like Jazz. After some initial research I developed the method of working and training the dog,” says Swindells.

Jazz, a two-year-old male, hits the ground running and doesn’t require any on-site preparation. The forensic scents were imprinted on Jazz’s memory during training — a four- to six-week window. “The dog is trained in much the same way as police officers train drugs or explosive detection dogs. It is all done via play and the only reward the dog gets is a tennis ball to play with.”

Swindells ( is already training handlers and dogs for police forces in the UK.

He is quick to add that forensic marker scent potential extends beyond metal and could apply to almost any kind of theft.

Metal theft frustration will keep mounting in California and more preventive legislation won’t cut the pain. With Lonesome Dove justice unlikely for metal criminals anytime soon, it’s a pity Swindell’s dogs haven’t been unleashed on the trail.

(See here for video footage of Jazz)

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