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Va. Churches the Target of Copper Thieves

October 3, 2011

When it rains on Roanoke's Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church, the water drips down new spouts. The same happens at Oakland Baptist Church. But at Christ Lutheran Church, rain still gushes out of the gutters.

These and at least five other congregations in Roanoke have been victims of thieves who have yanked away their copper downspouts, most likely to sell as scrap. Churches in Roanoke County and Franklin County have lost outside heating units.

Copper, at historically high prices, is a perpetual target of thieves, who cut power lines, rip out old plumbing and haul away air conditioning units. Since June, local thieves have targeted holy places, stealing guttering and heating units that will cost thousands to replace and might fetch less than $100 at a scrapyard.

"God was grieved when one of his creations sought to steal from an organization that seeks to lift up people," said the Rev. Dave Skole of Christ Lutheran Church in Raleigh Court. "It's like stealing from a widow."

Though local pastors said they were surprised by the rash of thefts, churches are frequent targets of thieves or vandals because it's easy to predict when people will be there and they often lack security systems, according to Manassas-based Christian Security Network.

Thievery increases with the price of copper. New copper sold for $3.85 a pound recently on the New York Mercantile Exchange, 35 percent more than it did two years ago, according to metalprices.com.

"It's obviously high right now and it's going to stay that way," said Melissa Merz, spokeswoman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group.

At least nine Roanoke buildings have been hit for copper since June 6, police said. Among the targets were churches along the main streets of southwest Roanoke's Raleigh Court, near Williamson Road and along 10th Street Northeast.

Someone pulled a heat pump late last month from a church in the 600 block of Merriman Road, near Chaparral Drive in Southwest Roanoke County, said police Lt. Chuck Mason.

In Franklin County, two heat pumps valued at $7,200 were taken from Snow Creek Christian Church and four heat pumps valued at $22,000 were taken from nearby Trinity Baptist Church, said sheriff's Lt. Steve McGuire. Both thefts were on Sept. 10.

There is no clear indication the crimes are the work of the same people.

At Roanoke's Christ Lutheran, some 160 feet of downspout was taken, Skole said. The congregation has not yet decided whether to replace the spouts with copper, which Skole said would cost $11,000, or cheaper aluminum.

At Oakland Baptist, built in 1967 on Williamson Road, thieves twisted and yanked 10 downspouts that were from 8 feet to 25 feet long, said Darryl Dellis, the chairman of the congregation's property committee. The church paid $650 to replace them with aluminum.

The earnings for copper crooks are far less than the cost of replacing the stolen items.

Cycle Systems, a recycler on Broadway Avenue Southeast, buys clean copper for $3 a pound.

The company checks identification, collects the name of the seller, and asks the origin of the material, said Daryl Keyes, the company's commercial manager. Managers at two other Roanoke scrapyards declined to comment.

Roanoke officers arrested a man after a neighbor called 911 and reported spotting him stealing copper from air conditioning units on the 1300 block of Clarke Avenue in Old Southwest, police said. Gary Wayne St. Clair, 49, of Roanoke confessed and was charged with felony property damage and felony larceny. The stolen metal was recovered.

Police have at least one suspect in the church thefts, according to a search warrant filed in circuit court. A police spokeswoman would not comment on the investigation.

Christian Security Network recommends that churches secure air conditioning units, keep outdoor areas well lighted and install surveillance cameras and motion sensors.

"Criminals will steal anything made of copper, including downspouts, gutters, bells, pieces of cemetery markers, and crosses -- basically absolutely anything made of copper," said Jeff Hawkins, the security company's director.

At Raleigh Court Presbyterian, building superintendent Linda Marshall long ago installed an alarm system and bright exterior lights. She said she plans more lights.

"The type of person who would steal from a church is just petty," said Josh Robinson, Raleigh Court Presbyterian associate pastor. "What I said when the spouts were stolen, I can't repeat in the newspaper."

Pastors and building managers have been on the phone with each other about the thievery. Absolution, they said, can be earned.

"It's an inconvenience. It's an affront. But no lives were lost," said Skole, of Christ Lutheran. "If the person came in, I would forgive them. I would ask them why and was it worth it, and I would forgive them."


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