Gravois Park Buildings Are Catnip for St. Louis Copper Thieves

The former St. Alexius and its next-door neighbor have seen 80 police calls this year alone

Sep 11, 2023 at 11:12 am
click to enlarge Photo of alleged scrap thief caught in the act by security at the old St. Alexius Hospital's Jefferson Campus.
Courtesy photo
This photo by a security guard shows an alleged scrap thief working in broad daylight at the old St. Alexius Hospital's Jefferson Campus.

A pair of large vacant buildings in St. Louis’ Gravois Park neighborhood are proving popular with scrap metal thieves, who have gone to incredible lengths to pilfer from them.

So far this year St. Louis police have been called more than 80 times to the Jefferson Campus of the shuttered St. Alexius Hospital and the abandoned National Graphics building next door. The two buildings sit on adjacent blocks of Miami Street, near Jefferson Avenue.

"It's the copper," says Jeff Ahlholm, who owns the land the old hospital sits upon. "Literally they will pass over taking other stuff that might even have greater value. But [copper] is what they know."

Ahlholm says the thieving operations are often sophisticated.

"That's what's been shocking," he says. "Some of the arrests have involved groups that are doing this slowly and strategically, almost like it's their profession. It's staged over days and days, even weeks."

According to Ahlholm, a group of thieves were in the middle of methodically disassembling a large boiler in the basement of the old hospital over a period of days when he had new fencing put up. He says the thieves destroyed the fencing in what he calls an act of "retribution."

"We have video of them ramming their truck into the fencing, almost like a tank," he says. "Then, once they smashed up the fencing so that they could actually go in if they wanted to, they didn't. They just packed up and drove away."

Ahlholm says that he has security at his building virtually 24/7 and that people mostly break in at night, but that more than a few have been spotted during the day, too.

Videos and still images shared with the RFT show scrap thieves in broad daylight, leaving the building in pick-up trucks and large vans, carrying tool bags and even wearing ear protection. Other surveillance video shows them hauling scrap away in makeshift hand carts and large trash bins.

One of the people Ahlholm hired to provide security for the property talked to the RFT under the condition we not use her name, saying she didn't want to draw the ire of the scrap thieves more than she already has.

"They all know me," the security worker said of the thieves. "They hate me."

She showed the RFT numerous photos she took herself of thieves leaving the premises. She says she calls the police if she thinks there's a chance they might arrive in time to make an arrest, but if the thief has already run away, she usually doesn't bother calling 911. "I don't want to waste the police's time," she says.

The thieves have established a quasi center of operations at a vacant house on nearby Ohio Avenue, the security worker tells the RFT. One scrapper was even forthcoming with her about their game plan, saying that a scrap yard in Illinois is the best place to take the metal, no questions asked.

Carl Walter has lived near the two vacant buildings for a little more than a year and a half. "It's a dangerous place," he says of the empty hospital campus and the vacant building next door.

Not long ago, Walter was walking home around 1 a.m. after a night out when he saw a woman walking out of the old hospital building with a young girl he guessed was around age 11.

"They were pushing a shopping cart with pipes and copper and all kinds of stuff that they jacked out of that hospital," he says. "That scares me. "

"I understand that people are not housed, so I'm not tripping so much off people who are living in there, trying to seek shelter. But there should never be children in there," says Walter.

Walter says he's heard stories of as many as 20 people being pulled out of the empty hospital at the same time.

On August 20, police arrested two men after spotting them exit the National Graphics building with a large chunk of copper and load it into a Dodge SUV. Police found reciprocating saws, bolt cutters and other tools in the SUV. Officers found what they described as "industrial tools" stacked inside the building as well.

Two weeks later, on Labor Day, police found a 35-year-old woman's vehicle in the hospital's parking garage. She and a 38-year-old man, both found hiding in the boiler room, were charged with burglary.

"It's like whack-a-mole," Walter says.

Of the more than 80 calls to the two properties this year, 19 have been coded as burglaries and the rest are a mix of suspicious person calls, building checks and responses to accidents.

Ahlholm, the property owner, says that while the pilfering can be combated, it's likely only going to end when they start redevelopment. Ahlholm says he is confident that will happen sooner rather than later, though he’s limited in specifics he can share.

"It's going to be broken up into some smaller component parts, and developed in different ways," says Ahlholm. "So there will be some commercial; there will certainly be some residential that will be priced to the community."

Walter, the nearby resident, says he's skeptical that redevelopment will get underway soon, though he wants to see it happen.

"Back in the day, when there was a hospital there, nurses, janitors, landscapers, a whole host of people worked there," he says. "That property could transform our community."

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