Copper Clowns: Faux AT&T workers’ scheme fizzles out at Minnesota WISP’s tower site

In Featured News by Wireless Estimator


FROM AMATEUR HOUR TO POSSIBLY YEARS OF JAIL TIME – Gabriel Smith and Travis Zaiser were arrested after stealing copper from a Minnesota WISP tower site with a surveillance camera. Authorities saw through their ruse that they were AT&T technicians. 

Two men from Minnesota unsuccessfully posed as AT&T employees and burglarized a communications tower site outside Little Falls in pursuit of valuable copper wiring.

Although the theft was carefully planned, the suspects failed to list on their arrest hazard analysis to be aware of any surveillance cameras.

Charged with burglary, possessing burglary tools, and illicit drug possession in Morrison County District Court were Gabriel D. Smith, 40, of Dellwood, and Travis M. Zaiser, 43, of Richfield, in connection with them targeting the tower.

The tower’s owner, Little Falls-based Fallsnet, stated on social media that last week’s break-in was the company’s third in the past year.

“The suspects caused significant damage, cutting through the south fence and damaging waveguides and cables, totaling over $10,000 in damages,” the statement continued.

A motion-activated camera monitor detected two people using a pry bar while trying in vain to break into the building attached to the tower on May 15, 2024. The two cut copper wire and cables from the back of the building, and Fallsnet immediately alerted the authorities.

Deputies arrived, saw fencing on the perimeter had been cut, and arrested Smith and Zaiser. At first, they claimed to be employees with authority to be on the property, but “when actual employees arrived, they confirmed Zaiser and Smith had no permission to be on the property,” the charges read.

A law enforcement search of the SUV they drove to the tower turned up burglary tools, a maul hammer, a flashlight, and suspected methamphetamine. A trailer attached to the SUV held a bandsaw that deputies suspect was used to cut the fencing and free the copper.

Also inside the SUV were AT&T stickers attached to a hard hat and homemade AT&T stickers affixed to the trailer.

Smith had previously run afoul of state regulators for performing unlicensed electrical work and was fined $2,000 by the Department of Labor and Industry.

If the men are convicted of third-degree burglary (up to 5 years), possessing burglary tools (up to 3 years), and fifth-degree drug possession (up to 5 years), they could face a combined maximum sentence of up to 13 years in prison. However, sentences can vary based on plea agreements, prior convictions, and other factors the court considers. Often, sentences may run concurrently, meaning the total time served could be less than the sum of individual maximum sentences.

As the state Legislature wound down its session recently, it passed a bill requiring anyone selling copper first to be issued a state license. The legislation awaits the signature of Gov. Tim Walz, who has pushed lawmakers to act.

Fallsnet has been providing internet service to Morrison County for over 25 years. The WISP provides speeds of up to 1 Gbps in some areas.