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HAMMOND — A federal jury found a scrap metal dealer guilty Thursday of stealing a historic railroad bridge.

Kenneth Morrison, owner of T&K Metals in Whiting, was tried this week in U.S. District Court on an interstate theft charge that he and a crew of workers cut up a disused bridge built in 1910 for a succession of railroad lines, just north of downtown Hammond, and sold it to Illinois scrapyards for more than $14,000.

Jurors deliberated one hour. A sentencing date is set for March 21.

Morrison pleaded not guilty. He didn't take the witness stand in his own defense.

His defense attorney, Sheldon Nagelberg, told jurors Morrison believed the Monon Bridge to be abandoned property, since Hammond city officials couldn't give him a straight answer on who owned it.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Powers argued Morrison knew full well the city owned the bridge, because he had applied unsuccessfully to the city in 1991 and again in 2014 for work permits to scrap it. "This wasn't a mistake," Powers told jurors.

Powers said the defendant lied to others to cover up his theft, claiming he bought the bridge from either the city or a railroad line that had never owned it.

The bridge crossed the Grand Calumet River in a heavily industrial and wooded area about nine blocks north of the downtown location of the federal courthouse where the trial was taking place.

Hammond is crisscrossed by several rail lines. The bridge was considered an important remnant of the city's history, because it was the last remnant of a railroad that serviced the Hammond Meatpacking Co., one of the city's first industries.

CSX donated the property, including the bridge, to the city on March 3, 1987. It was considered for use by the South Shore commuter line or as part of a bike trail, but instead lay dormant.

Powers said Morrison and his work crew moved aside concrete barriers to access the bridge in early December 2014, and over a two-month period cut its spans into smaller, easily transportable pieces he had hauled across state lines and sold to several industrial scrap metal buyers.

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A Hammond code inspector arrived at the scene Jan. 29, 2015, saw half of the bridge dismantled and put a work stop order on Morrison's dump truck parked nearby. 

State and federal agents found Morrison back at the bridge site on three separate later days, claiming he had a permit to salvage the bridge and being instructed repeatedly to stop trespassing there.

Powers said it was only during an FBI interview later that spring Morrison admitted he had no permits, license or permission and that he had lied when he had said so earlier.

Nagelberg conceded to jurors Morrison was no "angel" and that he clearly demolished the bridge in broad daylight and lied about it.

He defended Morrison by attempting to put the city of Hammond on trial, arguing its officials never gave proper public notice of its acquisition of the bridge and never communicated clear ownership of it to Morrison.

He argued the city abandoned the bridge to neglect. Most of the railroad ties in the bridge's bed had fallen into the river, and large metal sections had become unbolted.

Nagelberg said the dispute over the bridge should have been settled by a civil suit against Morrison and not in criminal court. "He is not a criminal," Nagelberg said.

Powers told jurors not to be distracted by defense attacks on the city. He said Morrison demonstrated he didn't care who owned it; he only wanted the money its scrap metal could bring him.

Morrison defended his actions in a 2015 interview with The Times, arguing the bridge was "like a shipwreck," and that "if a ship sinks, that's abandoned and it's fair game."

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.