Richmond County school officials in sweat about copper loss

Task force returns to fight thefts

Cross Creek High School Principal Jason Moore spent Monday afternoon sweating in his 87-degree office with nothing but a desk fan to break up the heat.


With thick air in the room, his secretary dragged her desk outside to the hallway, where Moore said the heat was a little less oppressive.

"We're sweating while we're sitting here working," he said. "It's bad."

During the scorch of summer, the Cross Creek staff is working in a sweltering building after air-conditioning units were vandalized three times in the past 23 days. Police say the thieves dismantled the units to steal copper and aluminum parts, leaving the school with $30,000 in damage and no cool air.

A string of copper thefts at schools and businesses this summer has sparked the return of the CSRA Metal Theft Task Force from 2008, a collaboration of 40 law enforcement agencies, recycling centers and civilian companies that work to track people who cash in on stolen parts.

Richmond County School Safety Lt. Richard Roundtree said he believes the three incidents at Cross Creek -- on June 20, Thursday and Sunday -- might have been committed by the same people. As of Tuesday, however, no one has been taken into custody.

"Our problem goes two-fold because it's not just the theft and damage of monetary value, we've got school starting in less than a month," Roundtree said. "In the middle of August, you can't have 1,300 students in a room without air-conditioning."

Since summer break started, Richmond County schools have seen about $40,000 in damage from break-ins and copper thefts. The majority has occurred during the Cross Creek thefts, but Benton Starks, the senior director of Facilities Services, said there has also been $4,000 in broken windows between at least seven other schools.

Starks said that in years past he had seen break-ins every night and had some summers with $300,000 in damages; there have been just 12 incidents this year.

"I'm not complaining because it's not as bad as it used to be," Starks said. "I personally don't understand it. I don't understand the motive for young people to break windows that their mothers and fathers and grandparents are helping pay for."

To combat the problem, the district has begun installing pressure sensors in the air-conditioning units at all the schools, according to School Safety Chief Patrick Clayton. If the tubing in the systems is dismantled, an alarm will sound and alert authorities.

The district also has a 24-hour maintenance call team that responds to broken windows, thefts and break-ins.

Richmond County sheriff's Investigator Kendall Brown said the motive in copper thefts is mostly money. The trade-in value for copper is on the rise, so the area has had considerably more incidents of stolen trade-ins.

Brown said the Metal Theft Task Force helped make two arrests in a Thursday copper theft at C.T. Walker Traditional Magnet School.

After the suspects dismantled air conditioners, causing $8,000 in damage, they took the copper tubing and aluminum radiation coils to Campbell Recycling on Dan Bowles Road, Brown said.

They cashed the parts in for $82, but employees tipped off Brown to the suspicious transaction, the investigator said.

Through review of surveillance video, deputies were able to track down two of the three suspects to a vehicle in Cherry Tree Crossing.

Officers arrested Charlie Jones III, 19, and charged him with second-degree criminal damage to property, along with Brittney Asberry, 23, on one count of theft by receiving stolen property over $500.

Brown said the sheriff's office has issued an arrest warrant for Charlestoneus Rodriquez Jones, the third suspect.

"We're being more proactive rather than waiting for a theft report and having to be reactive," Brown said.

In its second week of work, the task force has made more than seven arrests and has two outstanding warrants in copper theft-related crimes.

When the task force did its investigations in 2008, officers arrested more than 300 people in those crimes. The area was reporting almost 70 thefts each month at the beginning of the year, and the task force decreased that number to two per month by October, Brown said.

"The majority is drug-related, but it's economy-fueled, too," Brown said. "When the market prices (for metal) go up, most criminals, they can't help themselves. We're pulling people over, we're putting them in handcuffs, so we're starting to get back in the swing of things."

Frank Goulding, the vice president of marketing for Newell Recycling LLC, said recycling centers and junkyards are taking measures to prevent criminals from getting away with thefts.

When any person comes in to sell a part for money, the centers make a copy of the person's driver's license, note a vehicle description and keep a log of each metal part the center buys.

These records are shared with law enforcement agencies within the task force to keep track of all trades.

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