OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A former town councilman in the heart of Tornado Alley is accused of using work-release prison inmates to steal copper wire from emergency sirens intended to help protect people from tornadoes in his small Oklahoma town, the local sheriff said Thursday.
James Smith, a member of the Luther Town Council at the time of the alleged thefts, was arrested Wednesday on multiple charges, according to court documents. Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said the thefts left the small town — a northeast suburb of Oklahoma City, which has been hit by more tornadoes than any other U.S. city — without warning sirens.
"These are very, very important," Whetsel said. "It is a tragedy that an elected official would destroy life-saving equipment for use within his own community for the protection of the very citizens he was sworn to serve."
Investigators allege that Smith directed three prison inmates to gut six sirens being stored behind Luther's town hall in October during a community cleanup, then sold the copper and other metals to a recycling center in an adjoining county.
Smith made $157.95 from the sale, but after paying each inmate $40, cleared with $37.95, according to a sheriff's office affidavit.
Smith, 66, is jailed on six counts of copper theft, each of which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence and $500 fine. He also is facing one count of engaging in a pattern of criminal offenses, a charge that carries up to two years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
A publicly listed telephone number couldn't be found for Smith on Thursday, and officials at the Oklahoma County Jail said he was unable to take calls. No court hearing has been set for Smith, whose term on the town council ended in April.
The sheriff said there are no plans to file charges against the inmates because they were acting under Smith's authority. Whetsel, sheriff since 1997, said this was the first case he could recall about tornado sirens being vandalized for their components.
Whetsel said it will cost $31,000 to rewire the sirens in Luther, a town of about 1,400 people.
The sirens warn residents of tornadoes, as well as wildfires, and Luther decided to install them after a wildfire swept into parts of the town in 2012. A nearby community donated the sirens after upgrading its own emergency warning system.
Officials were in the process of acquiring easements and choosing the most-effective locations for the sirens when they were vandalized, the sheriff said.
The inmates had been brought to Luther to help in a community-wide cleanup day, and Smith was designated to supervise their work, according to investigators. The affidavit said the inmates, including two interviewed last week, have been reprimanded for their role.
Sirens are a key safety tool in Oklahoma, intended to notify people who may be working outside and away from alerts streaming in on television, radio or other electronics.
A tornado touched down near Luther on May 19, 2013, the day before a massive tornado killed 24 people in Moore, another Oklahoma City suburb.