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Thefts from cell towers interrupted service, deputies say

Lost cell signal recently? The culprit could be a 40-year-old Ruskin man who deputies said stole thousands of dollars worth of the equipment that powers cell towers. The theft interrupted cell tower signals on at least two occasions, deputies said, in Ruskin and Gibsonton.

William Bingham was arrested Tuesday on charges such as grand theft, burglary of a structure, dealing in stolen property and many others, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

The two burglaries are linked to a series of battery thefts at cell towers across the Tampa Bay area. But deputies said Bingham only faces charges in two incidents where he was accused of stealing at least $27,000 worth of equipment including batteries, copper wires and aluminum.

He sold much of it as scrap for "pennies on the dollar," said Hillsborough sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon.

Investigators are looking to see if Bingham is connected to the theft of about 125 batteries from cell towers in Tampa and the counties of Hernando, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota reported as far back as Nov. 20.

In most cases, the batteries are used for backup in case of outages, McKinnon said, so many of these thefts went unnoticed.

"We’ve advised companies to check their facilities," he said. "We expect more thefts will be reported."

Bingham sold the batteries to metal recycling centers, deputies said, using a fake name. That’s also a crime.

The first incident that Bingham faces charges in took place Nov. 27, deputies said. He entered a secure Verizon cell tower in Gibsonton using two codes that unlocked a perimeter fence and building, deputies said.

He stole 30 batteries that powered the tower, deputies said, causing brief interruption in the network and the 911 emergency system. The batteries were worth about $12,000.

Then on Friday, deputies said Bingham used codes to gain access to Verizon and T-Mobile towers in Ruskin. He stole 30 batteries from the Verizon tower, also valued at $12,000, and eight backup batteries from T-Mobile, worth about $2,000, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The agency would not say how Bingham knew the codes. But records show that he worked for a telecommunications company as recently as 2013.

When the thefts were reported, detectives knew to visit recyclers, McKinnon said.

"In the last few years, these facilities have become required to take finger prints and identification of individuals who sell metals or batteries," he said.

Bingham faces eight counts of grand theft, seven counts of dealing in stolen property, four counts of burglary of a structure and about a dozen other charges. He was being held Tuesday in the Hillsborough County jail in lieu of $38,000 bail.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jonathan Capriel at [email protected] Follow @jonathancapriel.

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