Fifth suspect in copper theft pleads guilty

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 3, 2008

NORFOLK—The last of five defendants in a string of copper thefts from cellular tower sites in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina has pleaded guilty to criminal charges in U.S. District Court.

Keith Arlan Pickens, 32, of Suffolk, pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges of conspiracy and malicious destruction of communication lines and systems. He will be sentenced June 23.

According to court documents, Pickens and four others broke into 130 cellular tower sites in 17 different jurisdictions between January 2007 and July 2007.

They removed copper grounding bars and copper wiring from the tower sites, selling the metals to local salvage dealers.

Prosecutors estimate that the group did $270,000 worth of damage to the cellular equipment in the process of committing the thefts.

All of the co-defendants in the case have pleaded guilty to charges of malicious destruction of communication lines and systems and await sentencing. Heather Maureen Yerigan, 27, of Suffolk, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy. She will be sentenced June 4.

Other defendants include Dale C. Merrill, 36, of Chesapeake, who will be sentenced June 25; Marinabernadett E. Long, 34, of Virginia Beach, who will be sentenced June 25; and Sarah Jo Carr, 25, of Suffolk, who will be sentenced June 4.

Each of the defendants faces up to 10 years in prison for the malicious destruction charge. Pickens and Yerigan could get up to five years each on the conspiracy charge.

The Norfolk Field Office of the FBI investigated the case, with assistance from law enforcement officers in Isle of Wight, Southampton, Surry, Sussex, James City, York, Suffolk, Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg in Virginia; as well as Camden and Currituck in North Carolina.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Haynie prosecuted the case for the United States.