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Chatham-based copper thief faces life in prison

Dec 23, 2010 8:18 am
The growing phenomenon of home and business copper theft again hit the front pages this morning with the Register Star's sterling crime reporter Andrew Amelinckx, soon to be a WGXC programmer as well, posting a story about an ex-con from Chatham pleading guilty for stealing the shiny (though as often patina-colored) metals from a number of buildings around the county. Seems that entire rings of criminals have been working similar copper-stealing beats up and down the Hudson Valley, working in second homes and closed buildings to take out plumbing, electrical wiring and fixtures while home or business owners are away. Amelinckx reports that Ronald K. Oakley, the ex-convict from Chatham, pleaded guilty to a multi-count indictment Wednesday for stealing copper and other items from numerous buildings in Columbia County and is now facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars. And that's not just for the copper but a long shopping list of petty crimes. Driving the copper thefts is a particularly robust secondary market for the materials, particularly in New York City.

The last time Oakley, 45, was in the Columbia County Courtroom of Judge Paul Czajka, Oct. 13 of this year, he had pleaded not guilty to the same indictment, but has since flip-flopped.

Arrested by the New York State Police in April for stealing copper wire and tubing from a Claverack business, Oakley was later charged with a laundry list of other crimes. The grand jury indictment includes 20 counts of third-degree burglary, class D felonies, one count of second-degree burglary, a class C felony and one count each of third-degree grand larceny, a class D felony and petit larceny, a class A misdemeanor.

Oakley admitted Wednesday that he broke into buildings in Chatham, Claverack, Ghent, Kinderhook and Stockport and stole items, mostly copper and brass piping, from January to April of 2010.

Police said Oakley targeted buildings that appeared to be abandoned.

Theft of copper wire and tubing has skyrocketed across the country as the price has gone up again recently after dropping last year. With the price of copper fluctuating, so too have the associated crimes, according to Sr. Inv. Gary Mazzacano, speaking to the Register-Star recently about an unrelated case.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that metal theft costs U.S. businesses around $1 billion a year.

During Wednesday’s hearing Oakley told Czajka that in regard to one charge of burglary he had never entered the building, but only climbed onto the roof to steal copper wiring. Columbia County District Attorney Beth Cozzolino withdrew that charge, third-degree burglary, leaving Oakley with 22 charges.

Czajka told the defendant that if he pleaded guilty to the charges he would be facing a “possible sentence, although perhaps reduced by operation of law, (that) could be over 100 years.”

Oakley answered that he was aware of that and only asked that “consideration be shown to my nephews.”

Three other individuals were named by the police as Oakley’s accomplices in his crime spree, brothers Kevin and Michael Beahn, of Chatham — nephews of Oakley — and Robert J. Knott, 51, of Philmont. The three were also arrested in April, a week after Oakley’s arrest. Kevin Beahn, 20, was charged with one count of third-degree burglary. His brother Michael Beahn, 22, was charged with one count of second-degree burglary and three counts of third-degree burglary.

Knott was charged with one count each of attempted fourth-degree grand larceny and trespass. Those three defendants’ cases are still pending. All three allegedly confessed to authorities, as did Oakley.

In statements taken by the State Police from Oakley, he recounts breaking into a residence in Kinderhook and stealing various items, including copper and brass vases and candle holders and what turned out to be “cheap jewelry.” According to the report, Oakley discovered that the house was not abandoned as he said he believed it was. “I looked in a bedroom and saw an old lady sleeping,” he told authorities. “We ran out of there ... We didn’t think anybody lived there.”

Cozzolino said Wednesday that the woman was 91 years old.

Oakley was on parole at the time of his arrest, having been out of prison since September 2009. He served eight years and three months for a conviction of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument. That case was also before Czajka. Oakley’s convictions and prison time stretch back for more than two decades and include burglary, grand larceny and attempted escape. Oakley will be sentenced Feb. 16, 2011 at 10 a.m. He was remanded back to the Columbia County Jail where he has been since his April arrest.

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