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Air conditioners being stolen for copper, police say; vacant houses especially vulnerable

  • Published Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 7:50 p.m.

As the temperatures rise, so do copper thefts.

As a result, Wichita police say home sellers and renters may want to take extra precautions if they decide to leave a house vacant during its sale.

Sgt. Allen Wolf with the Patrol East Bureau said police have noticed an increase in thefts of entire air-conditioning units – window and ground units – and their precious metals.

The air conditioners are popular for people looking to sell the scrap metal, especially copper piping, inside the units, Wolf said.

Thirty-six incidents of stolen air-conditioning units in Patrol East’s jurisdiction have been reported since April 13. By comparison, 29 have been reported stolen to the Patrol South Bureau.

“That’s half the city right there,” Wolf said. “If you project a dollar amount for those air conditioners, maybe $500, that adds up to $32,500 for 65 of them.”

He said $500 was a conservative estimate for the monetary damage.

Vacant houses, homes for sale and houses with “for rent” signs are the most common targets, Wolf said.

Wolf said two areas have been hit particularly hard:

• Hillside east to Edgemoor, from First Street to Central; and

• Kellogg south to Pawnee, from the canal route east to Woodlawn.

Wichita police Lt. Wanda Parker-Givens said warm weather is part of the reason police have received the spike in reports.

“We started seeing an increase about a month ago,” Parker-Givens said. “As the temperatures went up, that’s when people started turning on the air conditioners and saw the thefts.”

Barbara Boulanger, branch broker of J.P. Weigand & Sons, said she has had two real estate agents come up to her in the last four weeks to tell her about the thefts. Boulanger said agents are advised to tell sellers to take extra precautions if they are going to leave the house vacant.

“We tell them to notify the neighbors and take additional security measures,” Boulanger said. “It can be very costly to the homeowner.”

Boulanger said it is up to the homeowner to replace the unit, which is sometimes covered by insurance.

While homes are increasingly popular targets, businesses are just as vulnerable to the thefts.

A collection of stores in the 1600 block of George Washington Boulevard, which includes the McHugh Violin Shop, were left without air conditioning last week when thieves cut the copper wiring from five rooftop cooling units.

Simon McHugh, owner of the violin shop, noticed a rise in the store’s temperature earlier this month. Not long after, he realized the air conditioners’ copper piping had been cut with bolt cutters.

The estimated worth of the stolen copper piping is $400, according to the incident report. However, Wray Roofing, which owns the property the shops lease from, estimates its costs will be much greater.

Joe Lorimor, director of operations for Wray Roofing, estimated the cost of repairs could approach $10,000 because the copper piping is fed into the building from the roof; the thieves cut off the copper at the base of the roof, making repairs more invasive.

In the violin shop, where the temperature was about 76 degrees at noon last Friday, McHugh was taking precautions. He said that if the temperature inside the shop were to surpass 90 degrees, he could have a big problem.

“The varnish on the violins will start to soften and the glue lines also,” McHugh said.

The glue holds the front and back of the violin together, and if it gets too hot, it could ruin the violin, he said. McHugh said some of the neighboring stores had offered to store some of the more valuable violins, if need be.

The amount of stolen copper piping that affected the violin shop was small compared with taking the whole unit, as thieves appear to be doing at the residential properties. The inside of the air conditioner also contains copper, as well as aluminum, which thieves sell to scrap dealers.

Wolf said police don’t have any solid leads on suspects, but said the thieves are most likely using a van or truck – and working in numbers – to haul away the units.

Wolf urged the public to call 911 if they see suspicious activity and to not let the thieves know they’ve called, so police can get to the area in time. Most of the thefts are occurring between 7:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., according to Wolf.

“It appears this is happening during daylight hours while people are at work,” Wolf said.

As for the scrap dealers they sell the metal to, Wolf said it’s often hard for the dealer or police to determine whether it’s stolen property.

“It all goes back to being able to prove that it’s stolen merchandise,” Wolf said. “All of the serial numbers that are traceable back to the unit are often removed.”

Reach Raymond Howze at 316-268-6514 or rhowze@wichitaeagle.com.

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