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Gatorade Helps Nab Copper Wire Thieves

Passengers get off a Sound Transit light rail train.
Paula Wissel
Thieves stole nearly 4.5 miles of copper wire from underneath light rail line in 2010 and 2011.

A jury has found two men guilty of stealing 4.3 miles of copper wiring from Sound Transit's Light Rail System in Seattle. It’s believed to be the largest theft of metal in Washington State.

Apparently, the thieves undoing was a popular energy drink.

What ringleader Donald Howard Turpin, 55, and his partners in crime would do was climb up into the maintenance hatches that run underneath the elevated portions of Sound Transit's Light Rail System between the Rainer Beach and Sea Tac stations.

Once there, the men would use bolt cutters to snip off the shiny copper wire being used as a grounding wire.  This went on for over nine months, but police could never catch the thieves.

Finally, according to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, detectives got a break.

“It can get kind of hot and sweaty up there and they left a bunch of Gatorade bottles behind. And police were able to get a DNA profile off the Gatorade bottle and trace it back to Turpin,” Satterberg said.

Turpin, who made $50,000 in profit selling the stolen wire as scrap metal, could get up to 16 1/2 years in prison for First Degree Theft, Trafficking in Stolen Property and Leading Organized Crime. A co-defendant, Lee Russell Skelly, 45, pled guilty to Theft First Degree.

A few years ago, the Washington State Legislature increased the standard sentence for anyone found guilty of stealing copper and other metal.

Metal theft has been a problem in the region and around the country. Earlier this year, as KPLU reported,  some streets in Tacoma were dark for months because so much copper wire was being stolen from street lights that utility crews couldn’t keep up with repairs.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.