A quick buck is hard to pass up, but local churches and businesses say metal thieves do much more than just steal a little copper.
A rash of thefts, mostly copper from air conditioning units as well as copper wire, has churches like Saint Paul Methodist Church in Beaumont’s South Park reeling from damage done in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s a little overwhelming at this point,” said Pastor Ruby Nelson.
As she walks to the somewhat hidden area behind her church, Nelson points to the barbed wire around her air conditioning units, cut at the top where thieves scaled the brand new fence. Ruby’s church and it’s congregation will spend at least $12,000 on new AC units, fencing and lighting to deter copper thieves who climbed her two-story house of God for a 20-foot section of copper.
Ruby laments that the damage far exceeds any amount the thieves would get for selling the scrap and worries how long her church can sustain the thefts, having been robbed at least three times in the past two months.
“The copper thieves may only get $50 out of it,” she said.
Detective William Parrott of Beaumont Police Department, whose sole job is to investigate metal thefts, said the problem isn’t going away, even after a comprehensive sting operation where undercover investigators sold illegal metal to businesses across Beaumont.
“Did it deter any of the metal theft? Probably not,” he said. “It just put the recyclers on check.”
The 15-year BPD veteran said since Jan. 1 of this year, at least 185 metal or copper thefts were reported to police, but only 58 related charges having been filed.
Parrott said churches all over Beaumont, including East Mt. Olive Baptist Church and Iconium Missionary Baptist Church, have been targeted repeatedly. “They’ve had all their AC, their copper taken several times,” he said. “No leads. No nothing.”
Some local businessmen, including Mel Wright of Wright’s Scrap Metals, said police are targeting law-abiding businesses like his unfairly.
“If BPD cracks down on us in Beaumont ... people are still gonna sell stuff,” he said. “If they don’t like the law in your town, they’ll just go out of town.” At least three of Wright’s employees are facing charges as part of a BPD sting code named “Operation Steel Curtain.” As part of the sting, undercover officers sold city street signs and manhole covers to businesses like Wright’s.
Wright said, having run his business since 1968 to the best of his ability, according to the law, he has cooperated with BPD.
“I opened my computer system to them,” he said, showing BPD drivers licenses and video footage he takes of every customer who comes to his door. “I don’t want to buy stolen material,” he said. “I’m just as vigilant against that as anybody else.”
Joe Allen, owner of Commercial Metals in Beaumont, agreed. And although none of his employees were caught in the sting, he said he’s just as vigilant against would-be metal thieves.
“You kinda get a sense when someone is lying to you,” he said. “The story they’re telling you just doesn’t add up.”
With BPD and scrap businesses doing their best to combat the theft, churches and others are still caught in an expensive battle to keep their copper. “We’re hurtin for money,” said Reese Williams, a member of Ruby’s St. Paul Methodist Church. “It’s gonna come pretty close to bankrupt.”
Williams had a message for those who steal from God’s house.
“I hope they can sleep at night,” he said.