LEWISTON — Police and a code enforcement officer surrounded a house on Winter Street on Friday and arrested a man hiding in the basement, charging him with cutting out copper piping.
Shane Wilson, 32, of Lewiston, was arrested on charges of burglary and aggravated criminal mischief in a morning drama that began with a tip from a neighbor.
The investigation began three days ago, said police Cpl. Jeff Baril, who serves as a liaison with the city's Code Enforcement Office. On Tuesday, a Winter Street resident called police to report a suspicious vehicle parked near 111 Winter St.
Baril went to the house and found that it was vacant and unsecured. Investigating further, he discovered that someone recently had entered the house and had cut copper piping from the basement.
Copper theft has been a problem in recent years. Thieves steal piping and sell it for cash.
Baril teamed up with Code Enforcement Officer Tom Maynard and on Friday morning the pair returned to the house at 111 Winter St.
"We went back there to put a condemnation sticker on it," Baril said. "There were fresh footprints in the snow around the house."
There was more than that. Standing outside the house, Baril said he and Maynard could hear the copper thief at work inside.
"We could hear him sawing through the metal," Baril said.
A veteran Lewiston cop, Baril called for backup. Soon, several officers joined them. The officers found the burglar had locked the door.
"We had to force our way into the house," Baril said.
The ruckus alerted the culprit that his work had been detected. Police descended into the cellar, shouting for the suspect to give himself up, Baril said. He did not. Led by officer Eric Syphers, police searched the basement and within minutes, found their suspect.
"He was hiding beneath a work bench," Baril said.
Police also found a hack saw, clamps and metal cutters.
Wilson was arrested and booked at the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn.
Baril and Maynard have been working together, keeping an eye on vacant homes that could be targets for copper thieves. In recent years, such thefts have been a problem all over the country, as skyrocketing metal prices draw those looking for fast money. Thieves often target construction sites, vacant buildings and homes that have been recently foreclosed, ripping out wiring, cables, sprinkler, heating and cooling systems. The Department of Energy estimates the cost in damages and property loss at more than $1 billion nationwide.
"The thief might get $200 worth of copper," Baril said. "But they end up doing thousands of dollars worth of damage."
Friday's arrest was possible, he said, because someone took the time to report what looked like suspicious behavior.
"It's a case of neighbors paying attention," Baril said.