With an increasing number of elusive culprits ripping gutters and downspouts from homes, stripping wires and stealing statues from front lawns, Baltimore County police turned to a new tool in law enforcement — a Global Positioning System device.
Detectives said they attached the device to a silver Honda Civic after a Pikesville homeowner videotaped two people trying unsuccessfully to stuff a neighbor's statue of a boy and a kite into the compact car. It was the day after someone stole two monkey statues from the front of the same house.
Court documents filed in the case say investigators tracked the car to four cellphone towers in Parkton, Woodstock and Sparks, where thefts of metal grounding plates and wires were reported in early March, and to a metal recycling plant in Owings Mills.
Police said they matched receipts to the suspect, showing that workers at Maryland Recycle Co. paid $1,193.75 for metal valued at $14,200.
Authorities arrested Michael Francis Griesser Jr., 25, of New Windsor. He is being held on $20,000 bail at the Baltimore County Detention Center on charges that include theft, attempted theft and burglary. Police said they are investigating the suspect in as many as 100 other metal theft cases, based on the number of times he has pawned copper and bronze since June.
The theft of copper and other metal items has been an irritant for Baltimore-area residents over the years, and has increased recently with the rise of some metal prices at recycling shops.
Homeowners in North Baltimore's Homeland and Roland Park neighborhoods, as well as in Ruxton and elsewhere in Baltimore County, have endured a spate of thefts of expensive copper gutters, and many covenants require that replacements be made of copper.
"It's not just about the theft of copper items but the destruction that is left behind," said Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson, adding that the thefts "are destroying the architectural heritage of our communities" by stripping off some fixtures that have been in place for decades.
"This is a devastating problem in Maryland," Johnson said, calling 100 thefts by one suspect "a significant amount, but not unheard of. Thefts of metal are driving much of the property crime that takes place in Baltimore County and in much of the Baltimore metropolitan area."
There was no answer Wednesday at Griesser's home in the 3700 block of Roop Road.
Lawmakers have tried over the years to curb metal theft by imposing strict rules on how metal is resold, such as requiring IDs to be logged in and sent to a regional police database. Some items, such as lawn ornaments, must be photographed and set aside for a certain length of time in case someone reports them stolen.
The owners of the monkey statues, along with the owner of a ballerina statue taken from a nearby home, got their items back before they were melted down. But more common items such as gutters are impossible to trace as stolen, according to shop owners.
Gary Zeeman, the shop manager for Maryland Recycle Co., said construction workers routinely bring in copper wires and similar items legitimately from work sites, "and there is no real way to tell whether something is stolen or off a job."
Police got their break on Dec. 1 when a neighbor of Myron M. Oppenheimer and his wife recorded the attempted theft by two men of the 6-foot-tall boy and kite lawn statue. The suspected thieves abandoned the statue when they couldn't fit it into the back seat of the Civic.
A day earlier, the same couple had reported the theft of two primate statues, part of a set called "Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil and See No Evil." Police said the thieves took the two 50-pound statues but left "Hear No Evil" behind. No charges have been filed in that case.
With video and the license plate number, police said they obtained a warrant to secretly install the GPS device under Griesser's car. On March 8, county police officers were dispatched to four cellphone towers for reports of theft.
In each case, police said in charging documents, someone either cut through a chain-link fence or managed to break through barbed wire, and stole metal plates used to ground electricity, called "blue bars," and copper wiring. The thefts occurred Feb. 29, March 1 and March 4.
And in each case, according to the court documents, police said they matched Griesser's car to the location of the cellphone tower, and then to Maryland Recycle Co., where he used his driver's license to register the sale.
For example, police said they were called to Old Court Road in Woodstock on March 8 for a report of a break-in at a privately owned cellphone tower on property leased from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
The officer said in a report that someone compressed three strands of barbed wire on top of a fence, and used a hat to cover the spikes to make it over safely. A grounding plate and wires worth a total $2,000 were taken.