MARLBORO COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Three Bennettsville men - 33-year-old Ernest Randall Alford, 30-year-old James Kevin Barnhardt, and 31-year-old Kevin G. Collins - were arrested by the Marlboro County Sheriff's Office and charged with criminal conspiracy.
That criminal conspiracy charge is in connection to copper stolen from the Marlboro Electric Cooperative over several years. That copper was sold to salvage yards, according to the sheriff's office.
These men were arrested as a result of a two-year investigation including "physical and electronic surveillance, receipts from salvage and scrap yards...and new cooperative witnesses."
The sheriff's office confirms Alford was employed as a lineman at Marlboro Electric Cooperative for ten years, and has been terminated. Barnhardt and Collins were friends of Alford with prior criminal records. The sheriff's office investigation revealed Barnhardt shot a transformer in 2006 to cause a power outage.
Investigators also learned that Collins used Alford's ATV in 2008 to bring down copper wires on a line near Salem Road.
The investigation is ongoing and more arrests are possible. If anyone has any information about this case, call the sheriff's office, and your information will be kept confidential.
Sheriff Knight said, "This has been a long and difficult investigation that we have invested many hours into. I feel at this point that it may still last a little longer, and more arrests may occur because we still have a lot of questions that we need answers to. I hope that this will end some of the copper theft that has really put a financial strain on the MEC and the citizens of this county. I urge anyone with information to please call us so we can look into it."
"We want to thank Sheriff Knight and his staff, and particularly the lead investigator, Lt. Jamie Seales, for their ongoing efforts related to curbing the theft of copper and converting it to cash," said Douglas Jennings, Jr., General Counsel to Marlboro Electric Cooperative, Inc. "This is a problem that continues to plague the utility industry. When property of Marlboro Electric Cooperative is stolen, it affects all our members and the entire community, and our Board of Trustees has committed to provide a substantial reward fund for anyone who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone stealing copper from MEC, whether it is from poles or from substations," Jennings commented in encouraging citizens to come forward with any information in this or any other copper-related case.
Barnhardt and Collins are also charged with malicious damage to an electrical utility system for incidents in 2006 and 2008.