Knox County irrigation systems broken, stolen and sold for cash

Backflow preventer

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Several West Knox County residents are waking up to find out they’re victims of a crime that is gaining popularity in the area. Thieves are visiting homes in the middle of the night, stealing pieces of irrigation systems and selling the scraps for money. It’s a trend that is costing homeowners hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

While several parts of the system usually end up broken in the process, the piece that’s being stolen is called a backflow preventer. It’s the part of the irrigation system that keeps water going into the system from going back into the city or county water. It’s made of solid brass and ends up being recycled in a scrap yard for some extra cash.

“People are becoming aware that they can knock those things off for $20,” said Tracy Walker, who owns Bell’s Irrigation Systems and has been hearing from several customers who have become victim to the crime. “You get five of them in a row, house to house, there’s $100.”

A property crimes investigator with the Knoxville Police Department said West Knoxville is the clear target.

Joseph Bean (source: Knox County Jail)
Joseph Bean (source: Knox County Jail)

“These individuals are casing out the neighborhoods” said Officer Todd Strickenberger. “So far we think it’s multiple – a team of two.”

Strickenberger said they come back at night to bust out what they found. He said he’s seen five or six incidents in the last couple of weeks, but that only includes the ones that have been reported. He thinks the actual number of backflow preventers that have been stolen this summer could be in the dozens.

“It’s surprising and it’s upsetting, you know?” said Walker. “Somebody’s in your yard, at night, taking things off your irrigation system.”

It’s a crime that leaves homeowners with a big bill. While recycling the device only brings in $20-$40, it can cost several hundred dollars up front when it’s new. That in addition to the cost to get it replaced and fix the damage the thieves make adds up quickly.

“Depending on where those pipes break off, if they’re below the ground, it can be an expensive fix because the labor alone can be five, six, seven hundred dollars,” said Walker.

If this has happened to you, KPD said to file a report to help with the investigation. You can also call your utility because each device has a serial number on it that should be recorded there.

KPD said it is working with scrap yards to make sure they are asking the right questions about where the devices came from. So far, one scrap yard in Knox County has been cited.

Investigators are searching for more suspects. KPD arrested a man who admitted to stealing five of the backflow preventers. Joseph Bean told KPD he is addicted to opioids, and this was his way of getting money to feed that addiction. Investigators believe he was working by himself.

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