MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

June 29, 2013

State lawmakers seek to increase looting penalties

Arrests of looters in wake of May tornado prompt response


Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Reports of dozens of arrests of suspected looters in tornado-ravaged areas of central Oklahoma prompted several legislators to call Friday for increasing the penalty for taking items from victims of natural disasters.

Moore police have arrested about three dozen people for looting after the May 20 tornado that tore through the Oklahoma City suburb and destroyed or damaged about 1,200 homes. And Cleveland County Sheriff’s deputies have arrested six people for stealing from tornado victims, including two Chickasha men arrested this week for taking scrap metal from homes in a rural area near Newalla.

Under current law, illegally taking items from a disaster area is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, a $3,000 fine or both. The bill would not be able to be considered until the legislative session begins in February.

A total of 48 deaths have been blamed on storms that raked across central Oklahoma in May, including two EF5 tornadoes that touched down just 11 days apart.

“Everyone in my district is disgusted to see those that have lost so much being targeted by looters,” said Rep. Justin Wood, R-Shawnee, whose district was hit by a tornado May 19. “But what is even more shocking is that looting is only a misdemeanor. Taking advantage of another’s tragedy is despicable and should be a felony.”

Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn, who says he has more than 20 pending cases of looting, said that he could file felony larceny charges, but only if the value of the items exceeds $500. He said it’s often difficult in disaster areas to track down the owner of the stolen goods.

“Some of these guys have been going in for scrap metal or copper wiring,” Mashburn said. “Identifying whose property it was can be problematic.”

Mashburn said that while he’ll look at each case individually, he said he plans to seek significant punishment for those he prosecutes for victimizing people whose homes were lost or destroyed.

“Any discussions I’ve had with the public about this particular crime, they’ve been outraged and mad about it,” Mashburn said.

Most of the cases of looting in Moore occurred in the first few weeks after the May 20 tornado, said Moore police Sgt. Jeremy Lewis.

“We had perimeters for the first few days because it wasn’t safe to be in those areas, but an area that large, you can’t keep it contained,” Lewis said. “The looting’s pretty much done now, because the area is pretty much clean. There’s mostly just slabs left.”