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Copper thief's advice: 'Get a real job'

Lee Skelly was involved in the largest copper wire theft in state history. He is urging others not to follow his mistakes.
Copper wire

SEATTLE -- Lee Skelly says he was "out of it" when he agreed to help conduct the largest copper wire theft in state history.

High on methamphetamine and with the promise of easy money, Skelly, 46, remembers crawling under the train tracks in South Seattle where miles of expensive copper were ripe for the taking.

"I remember it being dark and eerie," said Skelly. "You hear noises. Then a train would go by."

Skelly and a gang of thieves snuck through a maintenance panel under the tracks near the Rainier Beach Link light rail station and hiked along the dark, hallow, concrete tunnel where pure copper wire was bundled. Used for grounding stray electrical currents, its absence posed no threat to the trains or passengers. But it meant $3.50 per pound to the thieves.

70,000 pounds of wire was valued at nearly $250,000.

"We had the stuff already cut down. I just rolled it up and ran it to the trucks up a hill," he said. "Pure copper. We called it bright and shiny."

Skelly was lured into the job by Donald Turpin, 56. Turpin was convicted and sentenced for organizing the heist. Prosecutors say the stolen copper was sold to area metal scrap yards in small bundles. Sixty-seven transactions were made between 2010 and 2011, netting the thieves around $200,000.

Skelly says his cut was a mere $2,000.

"I watched him get paid when I put my ID out there, and I thought, 'Wow, that's pretty good,'" Skelly said.

At its peak in 2011, the price of copper reached nearly $5 per pound. The price has dropped since then but scrap metal thieves are still prolific across the country. And with the price of copper rising again, law enforcement is already reporting an increase in metal theft again.

It took months before Sound Transit realized the wire was missing. It cost them $1.3 million to replace the stolen wire.

In the end it was lousy work that led to Skelly's arrest. DNA evidence was found on a Gatorade bottle, gloves and a comb left behind at the scene which linked the thieves to the heist.

Skelly cooperated with King County Sheriff's detectives which earned him 45 days in a work release program. He also had to pay restitution to Sound Transit.

"It's not me. It's not something I felt good about, " Skelly said. "When it all finally came out in the open I felt better to be honest with you."

Skelly says a bitter divorce and methamphetamine led him down the wrong path. Today he claims to be sober and manages his Seattle apartment complex. He also holds a steady job in asbestos removal.

"A lot of it is people that I see doing it are drug addicts. They work for themselves and a lot of it is laziness," he said. "My suggestion to anyone thinking about it, get a real job."