Copper theft creates havoc at Santa Rosa train crossings
Published: Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 9:25 p.m.
The theft Saturday of copper-coated wiring from at least two Santa Rosa railroad crossings apparently led to safety-guard malfunctions.
Traffic jams were reported at the crossings at Bellevue and Hearn avenues at about 11 a.m. after the safety barriers went haywire and dropped down, cutting off east-west traffic.
Four hours later sheriff’s deputies arrested Darrin Bezuhly,
Bezuhly’s red backpack contained a mass of twisted copper wire, a keyhole saw, wire cutters and a large plastic jug of chocolate mint patties. Its weight was between 15 and 20 pounds, said Sgt. Dave Pedersen.
“We can’t say with any surety, but what we caught him doing is what caused the crossings to go down earlier (Saturday),” Pedersen said. “The wires he was cutting were the same wires that were cut that caused the traffic jam and caused the guard rails to go down this morning.”
Bezuhly is being held at Sonoma County Jail on $11,000 bail.
Severing the wires disrupts the signal so computers at the crossing site can’t accurately adjust the safety guards in the case of oncoming trains, said Danny Mihelcic, co-owner of Summit Signal, a firm hired by the North Coast Railroad Authority to manage the signals.
“The safety issue is it endangers pedestrians and motorists themselves,” he said. “If the crossing (computer) can’t see, there may not be enough warning time.”
Summit Signal officials offered a reward after a thief stole about 300 “rail bonds,” the six-inch wire segments that are soldered to the tracks from tracks in Petaluma last week. The damage was estimated between $10,000 and $15,000, according to Mihelcic.
The street value of the stolen copper is minimal, according to Mihelcic because the bulk of the wire taken is merely dipped in copper, not the coveted solid metal.
The incidents Saturday included the break-in of at least one control box where lengths of coated wire were pulled from their underground location.
“It’s a major deal and because it’s interstate commerce with freight, it becomes a federal offense with Homeland Security,” Mihelcic said. “You would think a couple of pieces of wire wouldn’t be a big deal but it’s a huge deal. Not to mention the traffic inconveniences.”
Pedersen said the information on the thefts will be forwarded to the FBI.
The damage in the Santa Rosa, which was estimated to be at least $5,000, comes just one month before freight trains are expected to again roll through the North Bay.
There hasn’t been freight service on the former Northwestern Pacific Railroad lines where the damage occurred since 1998, when federal regulators shut the lines for safety reasons.
The North Coast Railroad Authority has spent $68 million in state and federal funds repairing 62 miles of track between Windsor and Napa. If the agency gets the OK from federal inspectors, trains could return by mid-April, according to rail authority officials.
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