Police nab copper theft suspects who duped City Light
SEATTLE - Two men accused of impersonating American Indians to dupe Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco out of 21 tons of copper have been arrested after months on the run.
Charged in the wire theft in December, Michael George and Jim Costa were arrested earlier this month in separate states. The men are accused of posing as Cherokee Nation charity workers to steal the copper wire from the publicly owned utility.
King County prosecutors contend George and Costa - known as "Chief Little Bear" and "Joe Wolf" to their marks - wandered the halls of Seattle Municipal Tower and talked their way into a meeting with Carrasco, who runs the municipally owned utility.
Posing as do-gooders running an arts and crafts program for Cherokee children, Costa and George are alleged to have raided the City Light supply lot after Carrasco agreed to a small donation of scrap wire. Writing the court, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Scott Peterson said George, Costa and Costa's son hit the utility as part of a nationwide scheme that's seen them defraud businesses in at least three other states.
"They flew to Washington state exclusively for the purpose of committing these crimes and either attempted or were successful in doing so in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Whatcom" counties, Peterson said in December.
The City Light copper was later recovered in Texas, where it was recycled. A City Light spokesman said the utility ultimately suffered no financial loss.
Though Carrasco's role in the theft was first publicized in December, the incident drew renewed attention in June when Carrasco was up for a major pay raise. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray ultimately denied Carrasco the raise, which would've pushed the longtime City Light leader's salary above the $300,000 mark.
Carrasco issued an apology for his "mistakes" after the raise was denied. Chief among them, apparently, was falling for professional conmen.
"I take full responsibility for the mistakes that led to some con artists stealing copper wire from the utility," Carrasco said in a July letter to City Light employees. "I want you to know that I am committed to making sure these types of things never happen again."
While Carrasco was in the hot seat, Costa and George were in the wind.
Charged with first-degree theft and first-degree trafficking in stolen property, the men are alleged to have come to Washington to rip off businesses here. Prosecutors say they then fled the state, as they have while running the confidence scheme elsewhere. Both men remained at large until earlier in August, when jail records show they were arrested in Connecticut and Texas.
George was nabbed Friday in Farmington, Connecticut, where he was apparently traveling with an Ohio driver's license. Costa was nabbed Monday in the Plano, Texas, area.
Both men remain jailed pending their extradition to Washington. U.S. Marshals and local police were involved in the arrests.
According to charging papers, George and Costa first approached a Seattle Public Utilities employee at the municipal office building. The employee told police the men were bedecked in "Native American garments" and claimed, falsely, to be Cherokee.
Costa and George said they were looking for the City Light office and dropped the name of a former superintendent. The employee led them to City Light, where they ran into Carrasco.
Having introduced themselves with their fake Indian names, the men told Carrasco they were members of the Cherokee Nation working with disabled children, Seattle Police Detective Don Jones said in court papers.
The men then displayed copper bracelets, necklaces and belt buckles, as well as a dream catcher, and asked that Carrasco donate copper to their charity. They passed out trinkets to City Light staff.
Asked for a business card, the men told Carrasco they had a bus packed with 35 children circling the block and would need the wire that day. Carrasco ultimately handed the men off to another City Light executive, who met them at an Industrial District storage lot in Seattle where he showed them 100 pounds of wire they could take.
The men returned to the lot with two rented box trucks, which they loaded with 42,500 pounds of scrap copper wire, Jones said in charging papers. City Light sells its scrap wire to recyclers to recoup its costs; the stolen wire was valued at $120,000.
Speaking in December, City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen said all the stolen wire was ultimately recovered in Fort Worth, Texas, where it had been shipped.
"Unfortunately, we were victimized by these con artists," Thomsen said. "These guys are professional at this."
Writing the court, Jones said George and Costa are suspected in similar thefts around the state and nation.
A week before the April 23 theft from City Light, the men convinced workers at SAFE Boats International in Tacoma to give them a tour of their facility.
As they would at City Light, the men passed out bracelets and belt buckles while visiting the boat manufacturer, which specializes in military and law enforcement vessels. They then asked for and received a small donation of copper scrap.
Told there was more scrap metal at a SAFE Boats facility in Bremerton, George and Costa drove there. Once inside, Jones said in court papers, they packed a box truck with scrap aluminum and drove away.
The following day - April 17 - George and Costa did it again at the Puyallup office of Potelco, a large utility construction and maintenance firm based in Sumner, south of Seattle, according to charging papers.
The men arrived at the firm and again presented themselves as Cherokee Nation members hoping to help children, Jones told the court. While George and Costa are alleged to have made off with 750 pounds of copper, company managers did not file a police report even after police contacted them.
Five days later, they again tried the scam, this time at Shell Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes, north of Seattle, Jones said in charging papers. Refinery staff didn't bite - the men left without any "donations."
According to charging papers, George, Costa and Costa's son, Nick Costa, took the metal stolen from SAFE Boats to a Portland recycler, where they were paid $8,600 for the aluminum.
Tipped to the scheme, Portland police arrested George and Jim Costa and seized the metal. Nick Costa is alleged to have fled from police in a second box truck. The truck was found empty in a Portland suburb.
Jim Costa and George later pointed police to the stolen copper wire, Jones said in court papers. The detective went on to note that the men previously rented trucks in Arizona, Arkansas, Texas and New York state. Police in Texas reported George had been the subject of several anonymous complaints of fraud.
Jim Costa and George were released in Portland and subsequently failed to appear in court.
Jones said others, as yet unidentified by law enforcement, may also be involved in the complex fraud ring.
"It is my belief that the suspects are very organized and detailed in carrying out this scam and have gone to great lengths to pull it off," the detective said in charging papers.
"In this case," he continued, "it appears that several members of the same family are involved."
The men are suspected in similar scams in Mississippi, Maine and Texas. Jones said Jim Costa and George may have been running the con as long ago as 1989.
Now behind bars, the men face extradition to Seattle to face the state charges.
According to a Hartford Courant report, George's attorney has said he plans to fight extradition, which could delay his return to Washington considerably. It was not immediately clear whether Jim Costa would do the same.
Nick Costa was arrested in Oklahoma and has waived extradition. He is expected to return to King County Jail in coming weeks.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the disguised purportedly worn by Michael George and Jim Costa. We regret the error.