Copper Bandits Target Churches

It may not be enough to categorize it as an epidemic just yet, but investigators with the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office have been kept busy over the last week by a string of copper thieves targeting local churches.

“Over the last week, we’ve had three churches hit, all off Highway 321,” Capt. Brad Douglas said. “Churches are, unfortunately, an easy target. They’re unoccupied most of the time.”

Between July 26 and Aug. 1, copper thieves dismantled air conditioning units outside churches between White Oak and just south of the airport, making off with an estimated $17,000 in copper tubing. Their first target: St. John AME at 4774 Highway 321 N. Deputies were called to the church July 26 where a member there had found the air conditioning unit taken apart and copper worth approximately $9,000 taken. The church had been idle since the previous Sunday, July 22, according to the incident report.

Copper bandits had a narrow window of opportunity during their next strike, at Weeping Mary Church at 7109 Highway 321 N. A security check at 11 p.m. July 30 by a deputy on patrol in the area found the church to be locked down tight and the property unmolested. The following day, however, just after 4 p.m., deputies were called to the church after three of the air conditioning units outside the building had been stripped of $6,000 in copper parts.

St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, at Highway 321 Bypass N., was the most recent victim in this rash of thefts. Investigators called to the scene there found that between 7 p.m. July 28 and 1:35 p.m. Aug. 1, thieves had ripped the top off an air conditioning unit and had stolen copper elements worth $2,000.

Although tire tracks were found at one of the crime scenes, forensic evidence is often difficult to come by in cases of copper theft, the Sheriff’s Office said. The very nature of the crime requires the thieves to wear gloves, and fingerprints are rarely left behind. Tracing stolen parts is also next to impossible. Copper tubes and coils, essentially, all look the same and bear no identifying marks or numbers. With no hard evidence, the crimes have not been positively connected; but given the proximity of the thefts, the Sheriff’s Office said they suspect a link.

“Copper thefts are high everywhere,” Douglas said. “But, given the time frame and the targets and the area, we’re probably looking at the same person or group of people.”

A new state law passed this year was designed to make the selling of stolen scrap metals more difficult, but the Sheriff’s Office said they have not seen a real decline in cases like these. The law has, however, helped law enforcement identify people selling scrap metals to recycling centers.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office is asking the community to be on alert for suspicious activity near susceptible target areas, such as churches.