First it was stealing copper pipe out of houses.
Now, metal thieves are targeting outside air-conditioning units, according to police.
Since June, police in Washington County said there have been about 24 instances of thieves stealing outdoor air-conditioning compressor units or stripping from them valuable metals — such as copper and aluminum — which can be sold for cash at metal-recycling businesses, police said.
Four churches were targeted in the thefts, including Downsville Church of the Brethren on Dam No. 4 Road in Williamsport and Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church on Donelson Drive in Williamsport, said Sgt. Chris Weaver of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The other two churches targeted were Hub City Vineyard Church at 11000 Bower Ave. in Halfway and Cutting Edge Ministries at 32 East Ave. in Hagerstown, Weaver said.
Weaver said a Hagerstown man was charged in the thefts at Downsville Church of the Brethren and St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.
Matthew Robert Howard, 30, of 7 Snyder Ave., Apt. 1, was charged with two counts of theft of $1,000 to under $10,000 and malicious destruction of property more than $500 in value, according to Washington County District Court records.
The Downsville Church of the Brethren theft was reported Aug. 3, and the woman who lives across the street from the church witnessed the theft, according to court records. The woman said a truck pulled up behind the church, and she and her husband heard a hissing sound, court records say.
“They just cut the air-conditioner unit line off the wall,” the woman’s husband said, according to court records.
A couple of hours later, Sgt. Rich Poffenberger of the Boonsboro Police Department found a truck matching the description of the one involved and the driver was Howard, who also gave an address of 17416 Mapleville Leaf Court, court records show.
Wilkie Nunn, pastor of Downsville Church of the Brethren, said he was thankful for a “list of blessings” connected with the theft, including that the neighbors across the street witnessed the incident. Nunn said he also was thankful that police were able to act quickly on the theft because otherwise, church members might have been walking into the church the following Sunday and wondering why there was no cool air.
Nunn said he was stunned by the incident.
“We never even have any vandalism,” said Nunn, noting that the church has been around for 150 years.
The theft at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church was reported Aug. 8. Two units valued at $6,000 were taken, court records say. Weaver said in a criminal complaint that he and an official from the church went to Conservit Inc., a metal-recycling business along Sharpsburg Pike south of Hagerstown.
Weaver said he discovered that a man sold several air-conditioner compressor shells to Conservit, according to information in court records.
Weaver told the church official he found two “shells” of air-conditioning units at Conservit, court records say, and the church official identified the shells as the ones that came from the church. The church official gave Weaver paperwork about the shells, according to court records.
Weaver said the model numbers and manufacturer of the stolen shells matched the ones found, court records said.
Weaver said copper tubing and copper wire can be cut from the air-conditioning units. The metal outer shell of the units sometimes is turned in for cash and thieves can get several hundred dollars for all of the metal in the units, Weaver said.
When thieves steal the units, they flip an outdoor electrical breaker to them before cutting the power line, Weaver said. The units can usually be easily moved despite their size, he said.
“One person can pretty much lift them and put them in the back of a truck,” Weaver said.
In some cases, thieves strip metal out of the units without removing them. That happened in a theft at Advantage Landscaping at 12936 Salem Ave., Weaver said.
The Hagerstown Police Department has handled four cases of air-conditioning compressor thefts since July 1, said Sgt. Jim Hurd.
In most of those cases, the culprits climbed onto the roofs of commercial businesses and stripped valuable metal out of the units, Hurd said. One of those thefts was reported July 27 at Chicago Uno Grill on Garland Groh Boulevard, he said.
Weaver said property owners can help prevent air-conditioning compressor thefts by keeping a record of the serial numbers of the units, information that can help police tie suspects to the thefts, Weaver said.
Hagerstown-area police said previously that they have handled dozens of copper thefts from houses, many of which involved theft of copper pipe from houses that are for sale or in foreclosure. Copper can be cashed in for up to $3.40 per pound.
Police have made some arrests in those investigations.
Just about any item containing copper or any other increasingly valuable metal continues to be a target for theft, according to police in Washington County and West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle.
Utility manhole covers, grates from carwashes and items made with iron and steel also have been carted off to recycling facilities for quick cash, police said.
In Martinsburg, W.Va., Claude Joseph Hartman Jr., 22, of Martinsburg, was arraigned Sept. 9 by Berkeley County Magistrate Sandra L. Miller on three felony counts of grand larceny and one count of attempted grand larceny, court documents said.
Hartman is accused of stealing an air conditioner valued at $2,000 from a Little League concession stand at Oatesdale Park on Aug. 16 and attempting to steal another air conditioner there on Sept. 1, the documents said.
The attempted theft in the park at 130 Tavern Road occurred on the same day that Hartman allegedly took a copper condenser coil from an air conditioner at Ebenezer Baptist Church at 615 W. Martin St., the documents said.