By Heide Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Officials in tornado-stricken Oklahoma cities are now dealing with looters who are stealing items ranging from copper wire to jewelry.
Moore police spokesman Jeremy Lewis and Mayor Glenn Lewis said 17 arrests have been made on misdemeanor charges of looting in Moore since the May 20 EF5 tornado hit.
"We are seeing people take everything from copper to pipes to scrap metal to all kinds of electronics," Lewis said. "It's a misdemeanor crime and not a crime we usually have to deal with."
Jon Fisher's home was flattened in the May 20 storm that killed 24 people and his neighborhood has been among those targeted by looters, mostly homes on the edge of damaged areas.
"The houses are still standing and looters are kicking in doors and taking TVs and appliances," Fisher said. "They arrested two guys in my neighborhood the night of the tornado who were carrying out a love seat and couch."
Fisher said his insurance company told him to remove all valuables from his house as fast as possible, particularly items with sentimental value or those not easily replaced.
Moore police also dealt with looters after another massive EF5 tornado struck the city in 1999.
In May, police immediately set up positions and checked identification of people trying to enter locked-down tornado-damaged areas. The Oklahoma Insurance Commission also issued badges to assessors and workers to make them easily identified when working in damaged neighborhoods.
Lewis said authorities have made more arrests this year than after the 1999 tornado, possibly because the 2013 tornado struck a wider area and because police are more attentive.
"It's mostly neighbors who are calling in the crimes to the police and we are catching them," Lewis said.
Three Virginia men - Steven Corky Daniels, 36; Steve Costello, 44 and Justin Wagner, 25 - were among those arrested for looting copper wire and scrap metal in Moore.
Maria Lopez, 30, of Norman, Oklahoma, was charged with disturbing a disaster area on May 30 in Moore after neighbors reported seeing her and her children sort through rubble.
Alleged looters closer to home were also arrested. Moore Police arrested Moore resident Edward Dean McDonald on May 29 on misdemeanor looting charges.
Shawnee police said they have made no looting arrests since a tornado struck that town on May 19.
Moore City Manager Steve Eddy said crime is not as widespread as some may think.
"We learned from the first tornado, and we have officers in that area 24/7," Eddy said. "We have no tolerance for it. We're not going to shoot them on sight or anything, but we will arrest anyone suspected of it."
On May 31, a second EF5 tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma, and severe storms left 21 people dead.
(Editing by David Bailey and Bill Trott)
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