After more than 100 bronze flower vases were stolen from area cemeteries before Memorial Day weekend, Mark Leder wanted to do his part in case the thieves tried to unload them at his Minneapolis scrap metal company. He posted a flier with a photo and description of the vases -- whose copper content made them worth $200 to $500 each -- so his workers at Leder Bros. Metal Co. would recognize them.

In Leder's view, no established scrap metal dealer would risk buying this kind of contraband.

"If you have a legitimate scrap operation, you have a lot to lose," he said.

As high metal prices create a big incentive for thieves, police want scrap dealers to be their partners, not unwitting accomplices to larceny. State laws require records of all transactions, and systems are in place to help alert dealers to possible thefts.

Despite such safeguards, scrap dealers acknowledge that stolen metals can slip through, and dealers and police said they need to improve communication to help stop the cycle of thefts.

"It's very, very difficult to look at a person and guess that the material has been stolen," said Rusty Gibbs, one of the owners of Kirschbaum Krupp Metal Recycling in Minneapolis.

Dealers and local law enforcement officials said they believe the high value of metals like copper and economic strains are the primary reasons for metal thefts. Prices for pure, new copper have risen to $3.28 per pound, compared with an average of $0.65 in 2002.

In the past week alone, a 160-year-old iron gate was stolen from a cemetery in Vermont. In the Twin Cities, 10 people in Ramsey County were charged last year for a string of car thefts in which vehicles were towed and sold for scrap. Last month, bronze stars marking the graves of Minnesota soldiers went missing from cemeteries in Isanti and Anoka counties. Also in May, Minneapolis police arrested three people when they were caught trying to dismantle a metal shed at a vacant house.

'Copper is copper'

Some of these goods, such as the bronze stars and flower vases, are easily recognizable and will be refused at legitimate scrap operations, dealers said. Yet for other items that are stolen often, such as copper wire and other common materials, there are generally no markings or serial numbers that help distinguish what was stolen from what was not.

"It doesn't have its own DNA," Gibbs said. "Copper is copper."

Under state law, the transaction records must include descriptions of all purchased items, the name and driver's license number of the seller, and the license plate number and description of the seller's car. In addition, all transactions can be paid for only by check or electronic transfer.

For some dealers, these requirements have led to high-end technology to regulate all sales. At Kirschbaum Krupp, surveillance cameras monitor the lot. The seller's identification is entered into the database, as well as a photo of the items they bring in. When they go to the counter to receive their payment, their photo is taken and linked to the file. The company also hires off-duty Minneapolis police officers to keep watch. A similar process is in place at Leder Bros.

All scrap dealers are required to register with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's Crime Alert Network. The network allows police to alert specific businesses, such as scrap dealers, about possible criminal activity. The trade association for scrap dealers, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, also has a "Scrap Theft Alert" website.

Sgt. Paul Paulos, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department, said the police use both systems to alert dealers about possible stolen goods headed their way.

Despite these efforts, both police and scrap dealers noted that the system could be improved. Revelations last year that many cars stolen in Ramsey County were sold to Metro Metals in St. Paul prompted discussions about whether to create a waiting period for scrap dealers before they can crush cars. Paulos said the Police Department continues to monitor Metro Metals and said the company needs to do a better job examining car registrations and sellers' IDs.

No one with Metro Metals could be reached for comment Friday, but Craig Greenberg, attorney for Metro Metals, told the Star Tribune in February that the company is meeting legal requirements and more. The company has acknowledged that it has scrapped cars that turned out to be stolen, but it also has provided the evidence that enabled police to arrest car thieves.

Better communication needed

As with the cemetery vases, Leder posts all the alerts by the scale, the first step for purchasing scrap. Some of these alerts are too vague or generic to investigate, he said. Leder acknowledged that the larger metropolitan police departments are likely limited in manpower, but he said he believes there needs to be better communication between the departments and scrap dealers, especially since there are so few dealers in the area.

"There's less than 10 scrap dealers in the area who would need to be on the hot button," he said.

Kirschbaum Krupp assists the police in catching potential thieves about once or twice a month, said Matt Woessner, the company's retail manager.

Minneapolis police Lt. Kim Lund, the property crimes lieutenant for the North Side, said dealers also could make a better effort to tip off police to potential stolen goods.

"Communication goes both ways," she said.

Leder said he and other scrap dealers don't want to work with thieves.

"There's always going to be somebody with low morals and no respect for people's property who are going to steal," he said. "The people in our industry ... we don't want them around."

Masako Hirsch • 612-673-4263