August 16, 2010
SPRING/HUMBLE – The destruction of four rooftop air conditioning units, vandalized by copper thieves sometime during the night of Aug. 10, has management and staff at Northwest Assistance Ministries sweating bullets. Looking at a total replacement cost of around $40,000, the operators of the Spring area nonprofit resale store are afraid for its very existence.
"We must get these units replaced as soon as possible," said NAM director of operations Randy Boyer, saying that the two remaining units labor to cool the 27,000-square-foot store and warehouse without much success. "Otherwise, we will lose sales and we will lose our volunteers."
Like most nonprofit organizations, NAM has felt the pinch of an unstable economy at its three resale stores for some time and has been struggling to overcome declining sales.
"We can't afford to lose any more sales," Boyer said. "We have cut expenses as it is, trying to save money. And every penny that comes in goes right back out to the community. It's not like we have a lot of money just sitting around. We don't have that kind of cash. The people who did this have no shame, to hit nonprofits like that."
NAM is not the only nonprofit group to sustain a substantial loss recently by falling victim to copper thieves. A few miles to the east in Humble, also along the FM 1960 corridor, Solid Rock Baptist Church suffered a similar fate. Humble Police said for the third time this year, on July 31, unknown suspects climbed the church's roof during the night and gutted eight air conditioning units for their copper coils, also resulting in $40,000 in damages.
It is still unclear how much of the cost to replace the units at NAM will be covered by insurance.
Dr. Ross M. Cullins Jr., senior pastor at Solid Rock, said his church's insurance company only advances a partial payment for the replacement of the air conditioning units. It is up to the church to at least front a large part of the cost until repairs are made and proof of the replacements are sent to the insurance company.
"Our congregation moved to Humble from Houston in July of 2006," he said. "The air conditioning units have been vandalized four to six times since we have been here. The total cost of this vandalism is over $100,000."
Cullins said his congregation has had to make do without eight air conditioning units at the moment, as repairs have not yet been made. As church staff and members come to terms with the fact that their place of worship has been targeted by thieves again and again, the effects of the theft, he said, are more than just financial.
"The damage goes far beyond the physical destruction," he said. "It has affected attendance and morale because some members have physical disabilities that are exacerbated if they get overheated. The church also operates a business which must be closed until the air conditioners are repaired. This affects the church's ability to pay its bills."
Although Humble PD and HCSO officials agree that there has not been a significant increase in copper thefts lately, authorities do say that copper theft is an ongoing problem of staggering proportions.
And there appears to be no easy fix.
"Metal thefts in general are a major problem. It's widespread, not specific to any particular area or time of year," said HCSO media relations manager Christina Garza. "Our investigators deal with about $250,000 worth of metal thefts per week. It's a serious issue."
Houston-based C&D Scrap Metal senior buyer Richard Wolf said copper prices have risen slightly over the last six months. Currently, a pound of copper can be sold at a scrap metal dealer for anywhere between $2.25 and $2.80.
"On average, the copper in an air conditioning unit can total anywhere from as little as $5 to $100 in value," Wolf said.
Boyer expressed his frustration at losing so much, while the thieves gain so little. A $25 or so profit on the thieves' end, he figured, translates into a $10,000 replacement cost for his organization.
He is also astonished at the thieves' audacity.
"At our location they had to have a 20-foot ladder to get to the roof," he said. "What's amazing to me is how nobody noticed a ladder and men on the rooftop in the middle of the night. There's an apartment complex right behind us. It's mind boggling."
To Cacth a Thief
Catching copper thieves is an enormous challenge for patrol deputies as well as investigators, Garza said. As was the case for NAM, and Solid Rock Baptist Church, the destruction of the air conditioning units wasn't discovered until the following morning. By then, the thieves were long gone.
"It's very hard to catch them," Garza said. "Not that we haven't done it in the past, but it's extremely difficult. Air conditioners are usually hidden behind buildings and on rooftops, where people don't notice them. Then [the thieves] turn around and sell the copper to scrap metal dealers right away. And although the scrap metal places are regulated in the city of Houston, that's not the case in the unincorporated Harris County."
Garza explained that while city of Houston ordinance requires scrap metal dealers to show identification prior to a sales transaction, the county has no such requirements in place.
"That's not to say there's no copper theft in Houston," she said. "There is, but they sell in the county."
C&D Scrap Metal is located in Houston, and Wolf said there are stringent guidelines for scrap metal dealers to adhere to. For each transaction, a driver's license is required, he said, along with an HVAC license for A/C technicians or proof of purchase or repair, to show the metal was legitimately acquired by the seller.
"We also record license plate numbers. We have to make absolutely sure it's legit," Wolf said. "Houston has a particular city ordinance that regulates us. We also have to send a report in to LeadsOnline every day."
LeadsOnline is a national crime-fighting database designed to report and recover stolen property and assist law enforcement in a number of ways, including a tracking system for pawn shops and scrap metal dealers.
Humble PD Detective David Scott said he is working on several copper theft cases at the moment.
"Most of them have been at businesses, and a couple of them at apartment complexes. It looks like FM 1960 got hit hard in the month of July," he said, adding that seven air conditioning units were gutted at Movie Tavern recently. "The problem with all these cases is trying to find out where the thieves are selling all the copper coils."
Meanwhile, Boyer wonders how to make sure the same thing won't happen again, once the replacement air conditioning units are in place.
"I don't know how to protect the new ones," he said. "Maybe alarms, possibly sensors or video cameras, and some places put cages around their air conditioners. But short of putting someone on the roof with a shotgun, I'm really not sure what anyone can do to stop this."
Cullins said electronic security measures are being implemented at his church to protect the units that are replaced or repaired.
"But it seems that armed guards are the only real means of securing the building," he said. "As far as the crooks targeting nonprofit organizations such as ours is concerned, it simply says to me that they have no fear of God, no respect for his people or the property of the Church. We pray for them because it is obvious that they need help. I am also praying that they will get caught and pay for their crimes to the fullest extent allowed by law."
Anyone with information regarding these copper thefts, or any other felony crime, is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.