Investigation: Scrapyard near abandoned Packard Plant dishes out cash for stolen metal

Third part of a daily series on the Packard Plant.

The route was always the same.

After loading their pickup trucks with scrap metal from the abandoned Packard Plant, the revolving door of petty thieves drove past nine blocks of abandonment, crossed I-94 and turned into a massive, gated scrapyard called Strong Steel Products. There, they traded their metal treasures for money.

It’s against the law for a scrapyard to knowingly buy stolen metal. The sentence – up to five years in prison.

The Motor City Muckraker spent four months investigating metal theft at the sprawling ruins of the Packard Plant and found a lively scrapping operation. The money is quick and easy – and the metal market is booming, producing record profits for scrapyards and modest earnings for scrappers.

At the Packard, with more than 40 abandoned buildings, scrap metal is plentiful. But it’s biggest appeal, said unemployed Carl Barnes, is its proximity to a scrapyard that ask no questions.

“Everyone know they cool,” Barnes said of Strong Steel on Strong Street, where his friend later unloaded a steel beam for cash. “You be chill, they be chill. That’s how we operate.”

Strong Steel is owned by Detroit-based Ferrous Processing & Trading Co., which also operates scrapyards in Flint, Taylor, Warren, Florida, Ohio and Canada. The company didn’t return calls for comment.

Packard owner Dominic Cristini, who says metal thefts have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, blames Strong Steel for much of the loss.

“I’ll probably get killed for saying this,” Cristini said half-jokingly, “but that’s where they take it. It’s a short ride.”

We followed scrappers from the Packard to Strong Steel, where other pickups full of scraps waited in a long line outside of the entrance. After getting paid between $25 to $250, they often retuned with more scraps from the Packard.

The company boasts about the importance of integrity on its website.

“We share a common commitment to doing the right thing,” the site reads. “We are in business for the long pull, and our reputation for straight forward dealing is one of our cherished assets.”

Scrapping may seem relatively harmless, but it can wreak havoc on buildings that could have been salvaged. Once gutted, the buildings become magnets for crime and are eyesores that drive down property values and accelerate the residential exodus.

Critics of scrapping say the practice won’t end until the real profit-makers, the scrapyards, stop accepting illegal metal.

Coming tomorrow: Michigan lawmakers backed down from reforms because of pressure from scrapyards.  

Check out our first and second installments of this ongoing series. 

Steve Neavling is an investigative journalist and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Got tips or suggestions? Contact Steve at sneavling@gmail.com

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.