Copper thieves struck yet another area school over the weekend, police reported.
According to Chief Fred Hanauer III of the Pinehurst Police Department, a school official reported the crime Monday morning, Sept. 9, after arriving at the West Orange Elementary School at 2605 MLK Jr. Drive in Pinehurst and discovering the air conditioner was not functional.
Upon investigation, maintenance staff realized someone had removed copper wire from the air conditioning system’s chiller units, similar to what happened recently at several Beaumont Independent School District schools.
Reports say someone had cut the chain on a gate housing the chiller units, and approximately 250 feet of copper wire had been removed from two units causing close to $1,045 in damage to school property.
BISD police are still looking for the suspects in four copper thefts at Beaumont campuses.
BISD spokesperson Ron Reynolds said at a press conference at the Bingman Headstart Pre-K4 Center on Wednesday, Aug. 14, that Price Elementary School, Vincent Middle School, the Paul A. Brown Center and Bingman all had overnight copper thefts over a two-week period, which left them with damaged and nonfunctional air conditioning unit chillers. Bingman was the most recent Beaumont campus, having been hit sometime during the night of Aug. 13 or the early morning of Aug. 14.
BISD Police Detective Sergeant Danny Moore said during the press conference that investigators were reviewing videos and testing physical evidence left at the scene by the perpetrators. Moore said the insulated copper electrical wire was a large gauge and hundreds of feet were stolen at each in the four Beaumont thefts, which started with Price Elementary.
“In my opinion, it’s not just one person,” Moore said. He said at least two shadows could be seen on the video. He asserted that because the modus operandi was the same in each theft and hundreds of feet were taken from each campus, he is “sure” the same perpetrators were responsible for the thefts at all four locations. He thinks at least one of those responsible has some knowledge of electrical systems because otherwise they would not have known where or how to disable the power to the A/C units.
BISD’s HVAC and plumbing supervisor Robert Mann said during the Aug. 14 press conference that he would likely have to hire a contractor to help with the repairs in order to ensure they were complete when classes started. Reynolds said the estimated cost, including contract labor and materials, would be approximately $33,000.
Bingman Principal Lisa Bolton said she is shocked someone would steal from schools serving local children and utilizing taxpayer dollars.
“I can’t believe someone has the heart and the nerve to do this,” she said.
BISD Police Sgt. Moore said the schools are located in neighborhoods where he believes someone must have seen something during the thefts.
“Somebody knows what’s going on,” he speculated. He asked that anyone with information regarding these thefts call the BISD police at (409) 617-7001.
Pinehurst Police Chief Hanauer said his department has identified two persons of interest in relation to the crime with assistance from other Orange County law enforcement agencies but asked that anyone with information pertaining to the theft contact them at (409) 886-2221.
When asked if the two suspects in the West Orange Elementary School copper thefts could be the same suspects police are looking for in connection with the BISD schools’ copper thefts, Hanauer said, “I can’t say for sure, but I do know that the persons we have of interest, who I will not name at this time, have been involved in copper thefts in Jefferson County. But as far their relationship to anything involving the school district, I can’t say for sure. Our investigator has not gotten that far into it.”
Upon hearing some of the details of the theft at West Orange Elementary School, BISD Police Detective Sergeant Moore said, "That sounds like my guys."
No arrests have yet been made, but the suspects could be looking at multiple charges if the thefts at the West Orange Elementary School and the BISD schools are related. Whether that is the case remains to be determined, but the perpetrators still face stiff penalties if convicted of even one of the thefts. Theft of copper wire is a state jail felony punishable by up to two years in state jail and a $10,000 fine.