Wednesday, May 7, 2008

History mystery

Plaques fall victim to thefts

By William Kaempffer
Register Staff
— Did you know that the first-ever telephone exchange in the world was in New Haven, or that the birthplace of Walter Camp, father of American football, was in the Chapel Street house that now is occupied by an AIDS patient advocacy group?
If you didn’t before, it will be much harder to find out now.
It seems pieces of New Haven history are being erased, at least from the public eye, as commemorative plaques — at least five so far — have disappeared from landmarks around the city, either stolen or removed for safekeeping as the latest victims to a sagging economy and soaring scrap metal prices that have driven thefts through the roof.
Thieves already have hit the war memorial fountain on the Green, ripping out more than a dozen bronze nozzles and light fixtures, leaving people like Bill Hosley wondering if anything now is sacred.
“It’s not (just) about history. It’s about commonwealth, and it’s about violating the spirit of community,” said Hosley, executive director of the New Haven Historical Society. “You don’t defecate on the steps of a church, and you don’t steal plaques off historic landmarks.”
Take Three Judges Cave on West Rock, where a bronze plaque once marked the famed hideout spot for the judges who signed a death warrant for King Charles I of England in 1649. During a visit, Hosley found a shabby, wooden replacement.
“What’s there now is what you do when you can’t afford to do it right,” he said. “Somebody had the gall to take the story of the judges and their escape from tyranny, and to actually pay someone something to melt this thing down.”
On the AT&T building at 400 State St., four historic plaques were taken down after someone tried to steal them. Two marked the location of the first telephone exchange. Metal plaques also were ripped from sidewalks and from outside a funeral home, police said.
Metal theft is not new and not exclusive to New Haven, but as scrap prices for copper, bronze, aluminum and other metals continue to soar to historic levels, thieves are becoming more creative and brazen.
Nationally, it’s not just copper pipes and metal siding from abandoned houses, a staple for thieves, but also huge spools of wire from secured warehouses, bleachers from ball fields, telephone wire ripped down from the poles and, now, plaques, some of which commemorate important, or at least interesting, events in American history.
Last year, in response to a rise in thefts, the state Legislature passed a law that regulated the scrap metal industry, which some people, particularly those who are hard hit by theft, view as complicit in the problem.
Now, for the first time, scrap yards, much like pawn shops, are required to document who they are buying from, send weekly transaction manifests to police and hold material for five days before melting it down or bailing it.
Lobbyists for AT&T pushed for the law and helped craft it.
“This copper theft thing has becomes a rampant problem for our company all over our country,” said John Emra, the regional vice president for external and legislative affairs for AT&T. “It runs the full gamut, spools of wire right out of our facilities, thieves literally ripping live wire right off the poles.”
The scrap yards, knowingly or unwittingly, have become conduits for the stuff, he said.
Earlier this year, the Police Department met with pawn shops and scrap metal dealers looking for some cooperation, but Sgt. Pat Marino, who heads the robbery/burglary unit, said police are getting “huge resistance.”
They showed up at the meeting with their lawyers, he said.
The argument from the scrap metal dealers is they’re trying to be good citizens, but it’s hard, and in some cases impossible, to differentiate stolen items from legal ones.
Marino, however, said that argument doesn’t always wash.
“It’s one thing to bring a load of scrap copper, but when you show up with a plaque or sprinkler head from the Green and bring it to a scrap dealer, it’s pretty obvious that these are stolen items.”
A man who answered the phone at Alderman Dow scrap yard on Chapel Street declined comment. Sims Metal Management, which owns a scrap yard at Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and Washington Avenue, released a statement saying the international company is committed to preventing metal theft.
“In addition to following the applicable local and state ordinances, the company trains employees to identify stolen material and who should or should not be in possession of such material,” said John Sartori, general manager of the company’s Connecticut operations. “If anyone at our scales has a concern about materials or a suspicious person, it is our policy to turn them away and contact the authorities.”
Rick Scavetta of North Branford noticed the Walter Camp plaque during his frequent walks to get coffee downtown.
He noticed it missing a few weeks ago.
“People wouldn’t know about Walter Camp all that much and now that the plaque is missing they definitely won’t know. It’s a part of Chapel Street history, certainly not something to be taken for scrap metal,” he said. “It comes down to city pride, that’s what it is. It’s Walter Camp. It’s Lou’s Lunch (and the first hamburger). It’s the first lollipop. It’s the bike riding on the Green. When I tell people about New Haven, I tell them this is not just the city of Yale.”

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