Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

August 31, 2013

3 found guilty of copper theft

By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

WELCH — Three McDowell County men were convicted Friday in connection with copper thefts that left hundreds of residents without telephone service.

Buddy Blankenship, 23, of Panther was convicted of conspiracy and damage to a public utility while Haskell Blankenship, 26, and Ricky Johnson Jr., 30, both of Panther were convicted of conspiracy in the theft of copper wire from telephone lines, according to a spokesperson with the McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.

No date for sentencing has been set yet but the men will return in September for a post-trial motions hearing before Judge Rudolph J. Murensky, the spokesperson said.

McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Ed Kornish said the three men were charged relating to a June 17, 2012 theft of copper from telephone lines in the Long Pole area of Panther. Kornish said between 200 and 250 people were without phone service for more than a day.

“It was the 18th phone outage in that year since January,” Kornish said. “Once these men were arrested the outages seemed to stop.”

Kornish said there is a high cost for the victims of copper theft.

“One of the problems we have in the western end of McDowell County is there is no cell service,” Kornish said. “People with emergencies could not call for help during these outages. A lot of people who are stealing copper are doing it just to feed their pill habits. They don’t realize the impact they have. These copper thefts could mean life or death for someone in an emergency situation. It also costs the phone company $10,000 each time they have to restring the phone wires.”

Dan Page, a spokesperson with Frontier Communications, said he hopes the convictions will send a message to other would-be copper thieves.

“This is a huge issue for us and entire communities,” Page said. “When people steal copper cables from our lines it eliminates a community’s ability to make any phone calls, especially emergency calls to 911. This is an ongoing problem, though recently we have seen improvement. These thefts can impact hundreds and hundreds of customers. We are always glad to see successful prosecutions of copper theft.”

Kornish said the investigation into the thefts was led by Trooper B.J. Garrettson of the West Virginia State Police Welch detachment. Kornish said he would like to commend the West Virginia State Police, McDowell County Sheriff’s Department and Frontier Communications for their participation in the case.

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com´┐Ż