The work-to-reward ratio of stealing a 325-pound hunk of metal out of a public street and then lugging it somewhere to scrap it for not much more than a $20 bill seems on the low side.
But it has been happening in Boston recently, and a lot. Police say that a thief is — or, more likely, thieves are — making off with the big cast-iron grates that cover storm sewer catch basins at an alarming rate. At least 55 have disappeared since November. They’ve vanished so quickly that police this week issued a public appeal, asking residents to be on the lookout for suspicious vehicles idling near curbs.
Stealing metal to sell as scrap is nothing new, but these crimes have become head-scratchers. Even if a thief were able to find a place willing to take what is clearly a massive iron grate straight from a gutter, the person may get only eight cents on the pound at a scrap yard. That’s a lot of grunt work for 26 bucks. And the take would probably have to be split at least two ways, because anyone who has ever tangled with one will tell you it’s a two-man job to wrestle the huge metal grate.
“That’s a very involved, very random way to commit a crime,” Shara Maynard, 23, said at the intersection of Bakersfield and Mayfield streets in Dorchester, the scene of a recent theft. “I think they need to think about what they’re doing with their lives.”
Police say the thefts have been occurring on Friday nights into Saturday morning, leaving a dangerous cavity more than 2 feet square, capable of swallowing a person or the wheel of a car with no problem. Below is a 9-foot hole, usually half full of storm water runoff.
‘I can’t imagine trying to lift one up onto a flatbed truck, and I pity the poor truck.’
The police alert comes after a recent spate of more than 20 thefts in Roxbury, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, and Dorchester, including the intersection of Bay and Maryland streets in Savin Hill, where thieves took three covers from the quiet area.
Janice Maloof, who was unloading tools at her boss’s house at that intersection on Tuesday afternoon, said the news strangely didn’t surprise her. “It’s Dorchester. You see everything. As long as the thieves stay out of Quincy,” where she lives.
But she is already too late. Quincy has been going through its own rash of recent thefts. In the last six months, the city has been hit at least 20 times by catch basin bandits, including a few in broad daylight.
But what is happening now, in Boston, is unprecedented, according to John Sullivan, the chief engineer at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.
“Occasionally you see them missing, but there’s a reason they don’t usually go anywhere, and that’s because it takes two people to wrestle them, and I mean wrestle them,” said Sullivan, whose workers generally don’t go near them without a hydraulic lift.
One person can pull one out with a crow bar, and then tilt it on its side, but it’s a beast to lift from there, Sullivan said.
“I can’t imagine trying to lift one up onto a flatbed truck, and I pity the poor truck,” he said.
In the past, Sullivan said, the agency has experienced periods when people stole manhole covers — apparently in some cases to use as the base for a mushroom anchor for a boat mooring. But they’re 100 pounds lighter and you can roll them.
“But these things are so ridiculous to move that I want them to catch them just so I can see what they look like,” Sullivan said. “If it’s a bunch of teenage girls I’m going to be really embarrassed and our guys are going out for exercise.”
The covers cost $196 each, plus roughly $150 in labor costs for the crew to install them, which is done immediately because of the public safety issue. The city has about 100 currently on reserve.
No local scrap yards were willing to talk on the record, but one worker said it is just one of those common-sense things they do not buy, like brass cemetery markers. “Only junkies try to sell things like that, and junkies know not to come here,” he said.
The thieves remain at large, and where they will strike next is anyone’s guess, because they have plenty of targets, 30,000 of them, worth three-quarters of a million dollars in very, very heavy metal.