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Accident at ATC Georgia site sends electrician accomplice to the hospital, two co-workers to jail
January 5, 2007 - Job site accidents are typically followed up by an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation. A Dahlonega, Georgia American Tower Corporation equipment building electrical explosion injury, however, saw a different group of examiners, the Lumpkin County Sheriff's department.Tower Copper Theft

Where there is believed to be a liability on the employer's part, OSHA will issue a notice of unsafe or unhealthful working conditions. In this accident, two of three self employed Paulding County men bypassed OSHA and went straight to jail.

A December 15, 2006 attempted copper theft that went awry ended in the arrest of Larry Winters, Rodney Hines Benson and Jeff Wheeler for felony burglary and resulted in severe burns to Winters' face and hand.

Attempted copper caper goes wrong
According to Lumpkin County Sheriff's officials this week, the three men were attempting to steal copper grounding equipment from a former AT&T self supporting microwave tower owned by American Tower Corporation when an extension cord that Winters rigged up exploded.

Sheriff's officials said no light switches in the mostly vacant two story concrete building were operational, so Winters decided to mount a ladder and tap into the building's main power source by rigging the extension cord of a work lamp into a pair of connectors at the ceiling.

Unfortunately, Winters, an electrician by trade, tapped into 440 volts of electricity and it created a huge flashing arc that severely burned him, investigators said.

His two accomplices picked up their badly injured friend and threw him into a Chevrolet Suburban they had parked outside the tower compound. Officials say they wanted to get Winters medical help, but first they wanted to get away from the scene of the crime.

They drove east about eight miles before dialing 911 and were met by a White County Emergency Medical Service crew.

The theft began to unravel when the paramedics alerted authorities to the suspicious injury. They said that the burn injuries were so severe that it looked like a meth lab had blown up in his face.

Benson and Wheeler told the EMS workers that Winters was an electrician and it was a work-related accident, but the 1:00 a.m. emergency didn't seem right to Lumpkin County Sheriff's Investigator Mitch Salain.

Salain visited Winters at Grady Memorial Hospital shortly after the accident. While in Winters' hospital room, Benson called to ask about the condition of his friend. According to Salain, Benson lied to Winters' wife and asked how the accident happened.

The investigator already knew Benson had helped get Winters medical treatment, so he suspected something wasn't quite right. Sheriff's officials said all three men eventually admitted to their roles in the crime.

Wheeler had been an employee of American Tower for about seven months before quitting with a laptop computer full of information on towers across the Southeast, authorities said. How many of those facilities the men burglarized or intended to burglarize is still under investigation, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Winters is still recuperating and has yet to surrender to authorities. The other two men were booked into the Lumpkin County jail and subsequently made bond.

An American Tower spokesperson said today that the company would not comment upon the incident which is still under investigation.

The rising cost of copper has created a new cottage industry - albeit illegal - individuals stealing copper products  from cell and other communications sites.