Copper thefts show anyone is a target

Published 11:47 pm Saturday, May 12, 2012

The official start of summer is just a few weeks away and, if the warm temperatures of late are any indication, there are plenty of hot and muggy days ahead.

Imagine going through the summer heat without the “luxury” of an air conditioner.

If the trend continues, you can expect a number of residents and businesses will have to endure the heat and do so without air conditioning thanks to the work of others.

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As copper thieves continue to strike the air conditioning units of churches and businesses, the owners of the machines are paying as much as $14,000 to replace their stolen units.

Clyde Harrell, owner of Harrell’s Refrigeration Service, said the thieves, who take the sides off the units to remove the copper coil inside, are selling the copper to scrap yards to net a profit.

“They’re selling it to get money for wine and whiskey, groceries and whatever else they use it for,” Harrell said. “Scrap yards are where they’re really going to have to bear down and put a stop on this.”

Thieves target buildings with larger units, such as churches and medical offices, because they yield more copper.

What’s worse, Harrell said, is the coils from the gutted units often cost more than an entirely new unit, so owners are forced to purchase new air conditioning systems rather than just replace the materials the thieves made off with.

“Replacing units has made for a lot of business,” Harrell said. “Last summer I had 13 jobs on my book – 10 of them were copper thefts.”

One such job was at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Sardis, where copper thieves made off with copper from two of the church’s units.

The Rev. Bill Gardner said the missing units caused for a warm Sunday service and cost the church more than $2,500 in insurance deductibles.

“We were shocked somebody would steal from a church,” Gardner said. “We prayed for them and prayed God would touch their hearts. But we handled it well. It wasn’t a huge event. Things like that do happen.”

In the nights following the theft, Gardner said a parishioner stayed at the church to ensure thieves wouldn’t come back and gut the remaining units. Since then, Gardner said the church has taken numerous precautions to prevent the incident from happening again.

“We’ve encased the air conditioners in locked cages and we also have video monitoring now,” he said. “We also urge our members, as they pass by the church, to circle around back and check on the units and see if anybody’s just loitering or hanging around.”

One unit from Selmont Church of Christ was also destroyed, but the church’s minister, the Rev. Gordon Gibbs, isn’t sure a fence will keep the thieves out if they decide to strike again.

“If they want it bad enough, they’ll get in,” Gibbs said. “They use a rather strong instrument to get the copper out, so they can use it to tear down the fence in not much time at all.”

Gibbs said the church, whose units were stolen late last August, has taken other precautions, however.

“We put up a light right by the unit to shed light on it,” he said. “We also had a bunch of trees in the area removed so there wouldn’t be any camouflage. I think it’d be fairly easy to spot them if they come back.”

Stories like that of Gardner and Gibbs are becoming more prevalent in the community. At last count, Harrell’s business has replaced 29 gutted units since July 2011. Employees at Fancher Fabrication Inc. reported that they’d replaced as many as 10 in the last year.

“It happens in waves. When they hit, they’ll just hit and hit and hit,” Harrell said. “Most people don’t realize this is happening because they call the insurance company, file a police report, get paid for it, we put it in and then everybody’s happy. They don’t realize their neighbor, their next neighbor, their next neighbor, all of them are getting hit also but nobody says anything.

“It’s a sad situation. I just hate to get business like this. It’s just pitiful.”