Copper wire theft at site of fatal St. Paul crash known to officials for months
Officials knew for months about the copper wire theft that created pitch black conditions at a St. Paul intersection where a man and his dog were killed on Christmas Eve, according to a Ramsey County spokesperson.
Steven Wirtz, 64, and his dog Gunther were crossing Maryland Avenue West and Park Street around 8:15 p.m. on Sunday when a truck hit and killed them. It was raining and the street was dark.
On Wednesday, after 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS started asking the City of St. Paul about the dark conditions, officials blamed it on copper wire theft that kept the lights off. Then, by the end of Wednesday, Public Works got the light working, and on Saturday, it remained the only illuminated light on the block where Wirtz’s family and neighbors live.
City officials — also asked when the copper wire theft was discovered — referred the question to county officials on Friday because the lighting infrastructure on the entire block and beyond is part of an active county construction site.
The streetlight poles are new as of mid-December and until they are fully installed, they’re the county’s responsibility as part of a larger, ongoing project that’s meant to improve safety, including a pedestrian median and bright yellow crossing signs.
In responding to questions from 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS on Friday, a county spokesperson said the copper wire needed for the streetlights was “discovered missing after Labor Day,” rendering the old streetlights inoperable.
The plan at that point was already to put in new, brighter LED lights, leaving the street unlit until they were put in. That length of time, a county spokesperson said, depended on a “variety of factors,” including waiting for materials.
“The new signal posts and mast arms did not arrive until early December and were installed once they were onsite,” which was mid-December, the email read. “This included the new streetlights incorporated into the traffic signal.”
Two weeks later, they have yet to be connected to a power source, which the county also blamed on “a lack of copper wire.” The wire itself is a St. Paul maintenance job that less than a handful of workers are available to do and one that the city says they aren’t typically able to do in the winter.
When the city found a way to connect one of the new lights on Wednesday at the intersection where Wirtz and his dog died, it was a bittersweet moment for family and neighbors who were still grieving.
In the glow of the single streetlight on Saturday, they lit remembrance candles.
“It was like a slap in the face that they could turn it that quick,” Wirtz’s next-door neighbor Carole Snyder said. “And Renée, I think you were the reason they turned it on with the questions you were asking.”
“If they would have had it on it that night, even with the rain, they would have seen him. It just was so bright,” added Wirtz’s widow, Laurellee Wirtz.
According to the county, all will be bright again on their block on Jan. 8 when the county is set to install and connect the lights to “the permanent power supply,” which is intended to make the lights “less susceptible to vandalism,” the spokesperson said, adding, “The new lights will also offer broader visibility.”
All we can do is take their word for it and hope it does happen,” Snyder reacted.
Once the lights are connected, they are the city’s responsibility to maintain, including fixing those hit by copper wire theft.
A spokesperson for St. Paul Public Works couldn’t say how many streetlights have been hit but said repairs have cost more than a million dollars this year alone.
“The whole city’s been affected, and it’s dangerous for everybody,” Laurellee Wirtz commented, citing an instance where she saw for herself, and reported to police, a copper wire theft.
St. Paul Police have made five arrests since mid-December, a spokesperson confirmed on Saturday, calling it a “drop in the bucket” with the rampant theft.
Meanwhile, a community remembered the life of a beloved man and his dog in a vigil attended by several police officers and Mayor Melvin Carter. Wirtz and Snyder pray no other family is forced to grieve the same loss.
“I hope it’ll be rectified,” Snyder said. “All I can do is pray, which is what I do most of my day, and hope that his passing, it’s for a reason.”
St. Paul Police did not have an update on the crash investigation on Saturday. The driver continues to cooperate with police, a spokesperson reported.