UPDATE 6/29/11 @ 10:30 p.m.
GUTHRIE, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- State Police have arrested a Kanawha County man in connection with a copper theft case that hampered communications at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s center in Guthrie Tuesday.
Police say Ervin “Tubby” Page ended up knocking out phone and Internet service for the department when he allegedly stole cable near the department’s property. Service was restored Wednesday.
Police say they noticed a suspicious vehicle in the area the day of the alleged theft. When police learned of the outage at the Agriculture Department, they found a red-and-white rope near the site of the damaged lines.
Police say they later tracked down the suspicious vehicle and found the same rope tied around Page’s waist.
Officials at Frontier say these thefts are something they're seeing every day.
They've been calling for tougher penalties against people who are stealing copper lines.
"They were only getting months, or weeks, or days in jail plus a small fine," says Dennis Bloss, area general manager for Frontier Communications.
Often, whether a thief does jail time depends on the dollar amount of damage done, since that determines whether someone can be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.
"It is obviously a crime. However, it is very difficult to get jail time on misdemeanors," Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants says.
Plants says his office has recently started invoking a little-noticed section of the state's code. It makes it an automatic felony to disrupt services, such as phone service, to the public.
"There is a push. It is now, cases that we look at with an eye toward maximizing a prison sentence for all of these criminals," Plants says.
In Page's case, police say he did about $10,000 worth of damage.
But, it's the fact that he cut off this important lifeline that ultimately has people concerned.
"This is not a victimless crime," West Virginia State Police Sgt. Michael Baylous says.
Bloss adds, "Now, we're seeing very large $100,000-plus fines. We're seeing multiple-year jail terms on these things. So, I think that's the prevention."
Page is being held at the South Central Regional Jail on a $75,000 bond. He declined to comment.
Police say additional charges and arrests are pending in this case.
West Virginia State Police troopers arrested Ervin "Tubby" Page on Tuesday. The agency says Paige is charged with grand larceny.
The theft of the lines knocked out the office's phone service.
Frontier Communications spokesman Dan Page says phone and Internet services have been restored at the state's Department of Agriculture headquarters.
The office experienced a similar outage on April 25. No charges have been filed in connection with that incident.
Employees were able to make some calls to one another within the building that sits about 10 miles from Charleston. However, they could not dial out, nor could anyone on the outside try to reach them. In addition, the department’s website could not be accessed.
Department officials asked the public to limit calls only to emergency situations. The department remained on its regular work schedule despite the limitations placed by service interruption.
Frontier officials said they hoped to have services restored Tuesday evening.
“It's kind of ridiculous," says Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass.
He says that statement is especially true since this same issue happened just two months ago.
"Basically, this day and time, we are susceptible to being totally shut down. That is a great concern of mine," Douglass says.
The department has fences surrounding the property and guards working, but the phone and fiber optic lines were cut off the department’s property.
Officials managed to forward some calls to cell phones, but there are certain emergency functions the department performs that it can't when communications are impacted like this. Those functions include things like responding to food safety emergencies.
"We're at a standstill at the moment. So, we will not be responding or taking any orders here for special laboratory work," Douglass says.
Just this weekend, more lines were cut in nearby Elkview.
Jean Teel, who lives in the area, recently had her phone service restored. But, she's still having issues.
"It's bad because my daughter is worried about me because of my health. And, she wouldn't know what happened," Teel says.
Managers at Frontier Communications say these thefts are happening practically every day.
They've put some safeguards in place like cameras and alarms, but they think stiffer punishments will help to curb these crimes. That’s something that area general manager Dennis Bloss says he’s seeing more.
"Some of these people are getting multi-year jail sentences now, wherever they were only getting months or weeks or days in jail, plus a small fine," Bloss says.
About 200 customers were affected, along with the Department of Agriculture.
State police are investigating.
Frontier has a 24-hour hotline, if you have information that can help in these cases. That number is (800) 590-6605.