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On the scrap heap: history

FRANKFORT — Gene Ray cringes at the irreverence of thieves who would steal historical markers to sell as scrap metal.

Ray, a great-great-great-great-great grandson of famed frontiersman Daniel Boone, is calling for tougher sentences for people caught plundering the bronze, brass, copper and aluminum plaques displayed across the country to commemorate places of historical significance.

The issue arose after a man was sentenced in August to only four months in jail for stealing a $10,000 plaque marking the original Missouri burial site for Boone. Cut into pieces, the Boone marker sold as scrap for less than $100.

"We were all just horrified," said Ray, an Atlanta resident. "That this would happen, especially to someone of such historical significance, infuriated many of us."

In the Western Kentucky city of Henderson, investigators are trying to find out who took a cast aluminum marker that stood in front of the onetime home of Gov. Augustus Owsley Stanley, who was elected in 1915. The newly refurbished marker disappeared about two months ago, said Ronnie Browning, a superintendent in the state transportation office in Madisonville.

In California, thieves stole a 160-pound bronze plaque last year from the base of San Francisco's Mount Davidson Cross. The plaque honored victims of Armenian genocide from 1915 to 1918. Police notified recycling plants in the San Francisco area to be on the lookout for the marker. So far, it hasn't been found. The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California paid $11,000 for a new marker.

Browning said the markers make easy targets for thieves because they're accessible and can be easily ripped from their posts or foundations. He said he is convinced metal salvagers took the 60-pound aluminum marker commemorating Gov. Stanley. Though such markers cost more than $2,000 to make, Browning said they probably would fetch relatively little cash at scrap yards.

Copper was bringing $2.25 per pound on Friday at Baker Iron & Metal Co. in Lexington. Aluminum, depending on its quality, was bringing 43 cents to 55 cents a pound. Copper alloys like brass and bronze were just over $1 a pound.

Prices have been declining in recent months, said Bob Garino, commodities director for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. in Washington.

"We're seeing some lows that we really haven't seen in quite some time," he said.

Garino said wholesale prices for copper have fallen since September from $3.15 a pound to $2.65 a pound, and aluminum is down from $1.17 to $1.04. He said the prices still are higher than five years ago, when the average price for copper was 80 cents a pound and aluminum was 65 cents a pound.

Cashing in with stolen scrap is risky in Kentucky and more than 30 other states where legislators have passed laws in recent years requiring recyclers to notify police if they suspect someone has dropped off stolen metal.

State Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville, said he thinks Kentucky's law, which went into effect July 15, has discouraged metal theft. The law requires scrap dealers to record the names and addresses of people who cash in recyclable metals.

Utility companies had pushed for the new law primarily to combat the theft of copper, which has been stolen from power and telephone lines, electrical substations and construction sites. Its ramifications reach beyond copper wire to bronze grave markers, urns and flag holders that can be melted down for quick cash.

Jerry Raisor, curator at Fort Boonesborough in Madison County, said all kinds of monuments, even statues, are at risk of being destroyed. Raisor said judges need to be tough with people who plunder anything of historic value.

"It's pretty pathetic," he said. "These are national treasures."

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