These days, when Dallas police Senior Cpl. Chris Wagner and his colleagues approach a suspected drug den, they check for telltale signs of another crime: electricity theft.
It could be a nail jammed into an upside-down electric meter, preventing electricity consumption from registering with the utility company. Or copper from car jumper cables used to bypass a meter.
Or, as in the case of a suspected drug house on Angelina Drive in West Dallas, the occupant – in this case already a convicted drug dealer – can simply string an improvised wire from an electric pole to the house.
"He told me his brother does the hookup of the power," said Wagner, a member of the southwest patrol's Crime Response Team. "I said, 'Well, why don't you get it legally?' and he just said, 'Why?' "
While police have no way to know exactly how many drug houses exist within the city limits, authorities believe there are hundreds. Many operate on stolen power, and police can use charges of tampering with public utilities as another tool to shut them down.
Wagner's group sees occupants of drug houses stealing power so regularly that the officers frequently team up with Oncor revenue security officials to check them out.
"Almost every drug house we go to, the electric box has been tampered with and they're stealing electricity," said Sgt. Bill Griffith, the team's supervisor.
"We've heard that there are people on the streets that you pay 50, 100 bucks to and they will hook up your meter for you," he said. "I'm amazed at how much electricity is being stolen out here."
Nationwide, the utility industry estimates that electricity theft costs upward of $6 billion each year, or about 1 to 3 percent of the industry's revenues, a number that experts called conservative. Locally, Oncor officials say electricity thefts have been on the rise, although they didn't provide any numbers.
"This year, anecdotally, a lot of our customers are reporting an over 20 percent increase in theft," said Wayne Willis, an official with California-based Detectent, a company that works with utility companies to detect electricity theft. "That's more because of economic times and people stealing to reduce their bills."
When Griffith's team receives complaints about suspected drug houses, one of the first things it does is check the meter. On a cold Friday in early December, his officers and Oncor officials visited several suspected drug dens.
At a rundown home on South Barnett Avenue, Oncor revenue security representative Jeff Weaver quickly took note of a nail jammed into the electric meter.
"The nail is not allowing the consumption to show," Weaver said. "More than likely it's a stolen meter."
Power had been shut off since July 2007. Oncor estimated the electricity theft cost nearly $2,500.
Weaver and fellow representative Jimmy Rodriguez used an extension pole to reach up and cut the wire leading from the house, shutting off the power.
Meanwhile, police received permission to search the home. They found drug paraphernalia, but no drugs. "They said they've been using meth, that they had used some meth last night," Wagner said.
The home's occupant, Richard Duarte, told police that he didn't fix the meter because he didn't have the money.
"I asked, 'When was the last time you got an electric bill?' " Griffith said. "He said, 'A long time.' "
Officers escorted Duarte away in handcuffs, taking him into custody on a state jail felony charge of criminal mischief related to the power theft.
At a tiny yellow house on Barlow Avenue, the utility company had shut off power more than two months before. But power was still on because someone had reconnected the meter by removing plastic sleeves meant to stop the electricity flow.
"We find stuff like this all the time," Weaver said as he cut power to the house. He noted that illegally hooking up electricity can be dangerous. "There's 240 volts of energy back there."
In this case, Oncor officials detected the theft because of a "smart meter," a device that alerts them when someone tampers with it.
A young man with a ponytail who lives in the home berated police and Oncor officials but declined to comment to The Dallas Morning News.
"He's a gang banger," Wagner said. "They've been causing problems in the neighborhood."
As police drove away, the occupants of the home returned to its cold, uncomfortable confines.
"It makes it harder for them to sell drugs out of the house," Wagner said later. "A lot of times they end up moving because there's no power to the house. It makes the house pretty unfun to be in."
By TANYA EISERER
December 29, 2009
The Dallas Morning News