The Heat Is On

St. Louis cops are on the prowl for a ring of air-conditioner thieves.

On a Sunday morning earlier this month, Andrew Joo and his girlfriend, Erika Lippert, woke up and noticed that their Lafayette Square home was much hotter than usual. With the city in the throes of a serious heat wave, they gave it little thought, turned down the thermostat and left. Upon returning that afternoon, the heat was so intense that they immediately called an air-conditioning repairman, who told them to check the external unit.

We didnt even know we had an external unit, says Joo, a Houston transplant who bought the home on Hickory Street two months ago. Lippert went out back to check — and found nothing but a slab of concrete and a cord.

They cut the wires and took our unit. It was a shock, Joo recalls. Why would they take an A/C unit?

Cold case: Andrew Joo (foreground) and Erika Lippert had 
their air conditioner stolen.
Jennifer Silverberg
Cold case: Andrew Joo (foreground) and Erika Lippert had their air conditioner stolen.

St. Louis police are scrambling to keep up with a rash of air-conditioner heists by scrap-metal thieves who, because of rising metals prices, are stripping the valuable copper and aluminum tubing from the units and selling it to scrap dealers.

Theyre stealing everything under the sun, says St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department detective Thomas Rund. Theyre doing it south, central, north — and theyre actually even going up on roofs and taking stuff and scurrying down. Rund says that there have been dozens of metals thefts in the past six months. Air-conditioner bandits last month made off with five cooling units in Lafayette Square.

In East St. Louis, meanwhile, pilfering scrap metals has become a profitable pastime — particularly among vagrants. The homeless people have been lying around in these buildings, reports Ken Berry, a detective with the East St. Louis Police Department. And now they find out that moneys all around them in the walls. Now everyones learning that. Now everyones getting into the business. Barry says hes tracing one particular group of as many as fifteen homeless people who are working together to strip buildings.

Stuart Block, owner of Cashs Scrap Metal and Iron, a St. Louis metals recycler, says the worldwide demand for copper, aluminum and brass, as well as a skyrocketing futures market, is driving the price increase. At the beginning of 2005, Block says, copper sold for $1.65 per pound. Today, it stands at $3.50. Thats a hell of a big number, he adds, so somebody who may be a little lazy for 50 cents a pound is going to go out and maybe work a little harder.

All of a sudden, if you worked all day, youd get twenty bucks, and now youre getting sixty bucks, explains Scott Tauben, vice president of Metalsco, Inc., a St. Louis-based metals brokerage company. Its created an incentive for the criminal element to try and steal scrap metal.

Block, whose company recycled remnants of old Busch Stadium, says the problem is cyclical. When steel prices escalated a few years ago, he recalls, people stole manhole covers. The increasing demand for copper and aluminum, however, results in significantly more damage because of the metals ubiquity: Theyre wired into the walls of buildings, hangs as gutters and runs through plumbing systems. Thieves have also stolen aluminum scaffolding from construction projects and have stripped freshly installed plumbing. With no identifying serial numbers, the metal is impossible to trace.

Block says hes been forced to install surveillance equipment and hire off-duty police officers to guard his lot. But a few weeks ago, even those measures werent enough to ward off the looters. We came in on Monday morning and were missing 4,000 pounds, says Block, who has seen the videotape of the thieves loading ten-foot sections of copper into a pickup truck. They were in the yard off and on for four hours. Its just brawn and guts — and maybe not a lot of brains.

Says Detective Rund: When we had the blackout, there were people stealing [Ameren] UE lines. They burn the plastic off and sell the wire.

Across the river, Berry says thieves may only net $100 for the stolen metals, but can do thousands of dollars worth of damage to a building. He adds that East St. Louis doesnt require metals dealers to record identification and address information of sellers, and those who are caught are usually only charged with a misdemeanor and are back on the streets the same day.

St. Louis does have an ordinance requiring used metals dealers to record basic information on each seller, but Stuart Block — who maintains that his company will not buy stolen material — says the ordinance is rarely enforced.

Rund says most metals dealers either knowingly or unknowingly buy from the thieves. They could care less. Theyre making a buck. Those that say they dont? Yeah, right. Its kind of like pawn shops.

Detective Berry says that unlicensed backyard dealers — called bootleggers in industry parlance — are taking the scheme a step further. Ive uncovered that drug dealers are starting to get into [the] recycling business in East St. Louis, he says. A user will come to them with metals, saying, Hey, Ill trade you this for a piece of crack, heroin, marijuana, whatever, but trade it for less than what the metal is valued at. The dealer then sells the metal himself, resulting in two profit streams.

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