Copper theft suspects posing as Cherokee charity face charges

SEATTLE -- Theft charges were filed this month against two men accused of posing as Cherokee Indians to con Seattle City Light and others out of more than $100,000 in copper wire.

The men are accused of conning Seattle City Light into donating a small amount of copper for a children's charity. But when no one was looking, prosecutors say the men stole 42,500 pounds of copper worth $120,000.

A stockpile of copper wiring at City Light's main facility south of downtown is set aside for recycling, helping Seattle City Light offset its costs.

But a whole lot of it got ripped off in April.

Police say 62-year-old Jim Costa of Park Ridge, Illinois, and 46-year-old Michael George of Dallas, posed as Cherokee Indians running a childrens' arts and crafts program. In reality, they're self-described "Romanian Gypsies," according to court documents.

The conmen came here to the Seattle Municipal Tower, authorities say, waltzed right into Seattle City Light headquarters and, dressed in Indian garb, made fast contact with City Light Superintendent Jorge Curasco -- the top guy who agreed to donate 100 pounds of copper.

Back to the gate came the scammers, say police, who created confusion and instead helped themselves to two truck loads of copper.

"They're very good at it," said City Light Spokesperson Scott Thomsen. "And, yes, we were victimized by it."

City Light administrators say they've already made preventive changes.

"They were very convincing," Thomsen said. "We were duped by these professional con artists."

Indeed, prosecutors believe they conned businesses in King County, Pierce, Kitsap and Whatcom Counties, and victims in at least four other states. They even tried the Shell Refinery in Anacortes but failed to convince them.

They were later arrested in Portland and gave up the booty after Seattle police quickly tracked them down.

"We were very pleased with the quick response from the Seattle Police Department and law enforcement in Oregon who were able to quickly apprehend these people and help us recover the copper," said Thomsen.

The two suspects had already sent the copper to a Texas recycler. So City Light just took the $100,000 from the recycler rather than ship it back to Seattle.

Costa and George were released by Oregon authorities. It's unclear whether police know where they are. They're supposed to go before a King County judge December 16 in Seattle.