Copper thieves create vandalism epidemic at Lower Richland churches

jmonk@thestate.comMarch 25, 2013 

  • Preventing copper theft

    Tips to slow down or prevent copper thefts:

    •  Put a locked wire cage around the unit. •  Install an alarm system. •  Install surveillance cameras and lighting. •  Mark metal parts with fluorescent paint or engraving.

— Nine Lower Richland churches have been vandalized since Jan. 1 by thieves who are stealing copper and aluminum from air conditioning units that in all will cost more than $100,000 to replace.

The thieves also have hit several homes and businesses in the Eastover and Hopkins areas.

“Metal theft is the more, the better,” Richland County Sheriff’s Department Investigator Scott Blair said at a news conference Monday at the latest copper theft site – the 128-year-old St. John Baptist Church, in a wooded area in the Hopkins community.

On the night of March 15, six air conditioning units were gutted outside the church, which was founded by freed slaves in 1885. The theft was discovered the next morning by the church caretaker.

Although the destroyed air conditioning units only contained a few pounds of copper each, if that much, the cost to St. John to replace them will run more than $30,000, church elders estimated.

“This event takes money out of our church budget,” said John Gunter, chairman of the church board.

The 500-member church, whose budget can run up to $200,000 a year, has outreaches to senior citizens and local poor and homeless that will be affected, said Gunter, 63, a lifelong church member. Insurance will cover some but not all of the loss.

The thieves likely are going to outlying counties like Orangeburg or Sumter to sell their stolen metal, Blair said.

Two years ago, the General Assembly passed a law to deter copper thefts by requiring people who sell copper and other metals to scrap dealers to get a permit from their local sheriffs and meet other requirements.

Since then, copper thefts have gone down statewide by about 30 percent, said S.C. Sheriffs’ Association executive director Jeff Moore, although he said there are intermittent periods when thefts go up.

Moore said this year, sheriffs and groups that insure churches are pushing a bill that would make it even harder for thieves to resell copper. Specifically, that bill would require anyone selling copper from a large air conditioning unit to be a certified air conditioning technician.

That’s an EPA requirement under federal law anyway, since large air conditioning units contain a hazardous chemical requiring specialized knowledge to prevent pollution when dismantling it, Moore said. The bill will contain exemptions that would allow law-abiding citizens to sell copper from their own air conditioning units if they felt they had to, he said.

Blair said in Richland County last fall, there were few instances of vandalizing air conditioning units.

But right after Christmas, an epidemic started in the Hopkins-Eastover area, a rural community where houses and churches often don’t have close neighbors.

Thieves most often strike on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Blair said. They probably case the church in the day and return at night, he said.

Blair, the sheriff’s full-time copper thief investigator, indicated he has suspects in the current wave of church vandalism but declined to comment further.

“I think it’s two guys primarily,” he said, adding they likely are from Richland County.

Transporting stolen copper carries a 10-year prison sentence.

The vandals are putting a financial strain on the churches, which are having to face the unexpected expense, said Sheriff Leon Lott.

Lott said thieves have struck at least four denominations, with Baptist and Methodist congregations being the most common targets.

Besides St. John, the most damage was done Feb. 4 at Lebanon United Methodist Church, at 10220 Garners Ferry Road. Lott estimated the damage there at $30,000.

Gunter said St. John will be buying new units and installing safeguards.

He declined to say what they would be but said the next time thieves strike, “We will have a surprise for them.”

Among other churches vandalized since January and the amount in damage:

• March 13: Mill Creek United Methodist, Columbia; $24,000

• March 13: New Life Christian Center, 8111 Garners Ferry Road; $4,000

• Feb. 19: Ladson’s Chapel Baptist, 7156 Cabin Creek Road, Hopkins; $8,000

• Jan. 31: Highway Christian, 112 Southwind Road, Eastover; $1,200

• Jan. 28: Mount Zion Baptist, 128 Mount Zion Church Road, Eastover; $6,050

Jan. 27: Antioch AME Zion, 1136 Antioch Amez Church Road, Eastover; $5,500

• Jan. 13: Good Hope Baptist, 11500 Garners Ferry Road, Eastover; $2,000

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