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Noisy Amp Thieves Caught in the Act

When you're stealing cable signal amplifiers placed in the public right of way, your luck can't hold out forever — and it ran out for two Nicaraguan nationals in the wee hours of Sept. 12.

That's when a sleepy homeowner in Corona, Calif., called authorities to gripe that men were noisily working on the cable plant near his house. Responding police — who had been alerted to the plant thefts by local operators — arrested the men and may have broken a ring that had hit systems in San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties.

Police said they arrested Corona residents Roberto Ochoa and Agaton Rojas, Corona residents in the act of stealing the equipment. The pair were charged with possession of stolen property, grand theft, felony vandalism, conspiracy and damage to public utilities.

This latest flurry of thefts seemed to target systems that had been upgraded to enable the delivery of digital cable and high-speed data services. The thieves hit repeatedly, especially in Charter Communications Inc. systems in the Rancho Cucamonga area, and in Adelphia Communications Corp. territory in northern Orange County.

Each theft would knock 50 to 250 customers off line until technicians could replace the amplifiers in their pole-mounted plastic housing.

Local operators, including AT&T Broadband and Cox Communications Inc., met with local police and sheriff's departments to develop an antitheft task force, so officers would understand the gravity of the crime and know the types of evidence to seek.

But catching the men was still difficult because they typically struck between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.

"A couple of times, we came very close to catching them," said Charter regional security director Michael Asghari." We have 24-hour customer service, so we'd jump if someone called. But it only takes a couple of minutes for them to steal these things."

Charter has lost about $300,000 in hardware in this rash of amplifier thefts.

The swiftness of the crimes was explained when the pair was captured: the men had a key to open the boxes. Cutting the amplifiers free was the only challenge.

Investigators believe the men stole the equipment for sale to cable providers in Nicaragua or Honduras.

Asghari said the investigation is ongoing; he would not discuss what customer records had been recovered, or whether the companies have discovered how the hardware has been exported to Central America.

Security investigators are not sure this arrest will stop the thefts, given the demand for the stolen parts.

Buying stolen parts "is still cheaper than the price they can pay to legal suppliers," Asghari said. The same theft problem crops up every couple of years, he said.