Having a pickup truck with a rear tire removed led to the arrest of two men stealing copper railroad signal wire along a stretch of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) near the Utah-Nevada border last month.
Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee reported two men arrested at the scene were Darren Klepatz, 46, and Jason Vitale, 45, both of Las Vegas.
District Attorney Dylan Frehner said both Klepatz and Vitale opted to plead guilty in late November for a plea bargain of guilty to Grand Larceny, which carries a one- to five-year prison sentence and up to a $5,000 fine. Frehner said the county will be seeking restitution in the range of $30,000.
They had jacked up their Green Ford Ranger and removed the right rear tire, replacing it with a spool that could wind up the wire that had been cut.
Lee said on Nov. 6, the sheriff’s office received a call from UPRR that a suspicious green Ford Ranger and two men were seen along the railroad line.
He said, “We have been receiving multiple calls since early August, reporting theft of signal wire along the UPRR line east of Crestline. We were also receiving multiple calls from ranchers of fence lines being cut. And we had received multiple calls of sightings of a green Ford Ranger, and something going on, but we couldn’t actually catch anybody in the act.”
However, Lee said about 12:40 p.m. Nov. 6, a call came into the dispatch center from UPRR that one of their employees had “observed a green Ford Ranger and a male subject along the railroad track near the Crestline-Barclay area.”
Sheriff Deputies LaJoy and Lewis were sent to the scene, just south of the Crestline crossing, and found the two men and the pickup about 10-15 feet from the track, beyond a clearly visible “No Trespassing” UPRR sign. The men were arrested and taken into custody without incident.
Lee said, “The bed of the truck had several rolls of wire already loaded, and other wires were strewn about on the ground, along with ladders, cutting pliers, hatchets and pole saws.”
The two were booked into the Lincoln County Detention Center, appeared in Meadow Valley Justice Court and were charged with three counts of Grand Larceny and Trespassing, Class B Felonies.
UPRR police from Salt Lake City were notified and dispatched an officer to Pioche and the crime scene. Multiple pieces of evidence were removed from the scene.
In the ensuing investigation since Nov. 6, Lee said it was learned the men had made at least 18 trips to Las Vegas between Aug. 1 and early November to drop off wire at the recycling plant. “That’s the ones we’re aware of and have physical evidence of that we can prove.” He said Klepatz and Vitale “were paid over $32,000 and turned in approximately 9,600 pounds of wire, over 18,000 feet, which equates to 22.46 miles of copper wire.”
The wire is used for signal communications along the UPRR lines. Lee said UPRR estimated replacement costs for the wire alone, not the installation, will be over $150,000.
Lee said he did not know if the recycling plant might be held accountable for accepting and making payment for the stolen wire, “but they might be.”
Klepatz was returned to the jail in Pahrump, where he is facing other charges of multiple felony warrants. Vitale is not at the Lincoln County Detention at this time either.
In closing the case, Lee said, “We had really good and instrumental cooperation from the railroad police officers from Salt Lake City. They came right over, followed through on the case, did a bunch of followup work in Las Vegas as well to get more information for our investigation. Great cooperation between the two agencies for sure.”
This is not the first time wire thieves have stolen from UPRR in that area; there have been a number of similar thefts in past years.
“One in particular,” Lee said, “several years ago, in the same general area, three thieves actually cut live railroad signal communications wires and jeopardized the safety of railroad traffic control for a time.” All three were eventually caught, tried, convicted and given prison sentences.