Copper thieves targeting business air conditioning units

Jazzercise owner Brenda Wilch was stunned when thieves ripped away copper inside the air conditioner units Aug. 3 behind her business, 3115 W. Sixth St., leaving the back alleyway behind the building strewn with sheet metal pieces. Now the landlord has erected cages around all the units.

One of Brenda Wilch’s instructors at the Lawrence Jazzercise Center called her earlier this month. It was 87 degrees inside the fitness center and getting warmer as the summer heat promised to increase outside at the strip mall, 3115 W. Sixth St.

Wilch, who’s owned the business since July 1, asked her maintenance man to work on the two units in the alley.

“They arrived. We looked outside and realized that one unit had been completely dismantled,” Wilch said. “The other unit was in pieces.”

Thieves had been after the copper wire in the units. Since July 30, Lawrence police have taken reports of five other similar crimes.

Sgt. Matt Sarna, a Lawrence police spokesman, said officers see these types crimes periodically, and they tend to increase during summer. Police suspect a down economy is also a factor as suspects steal the copper wire and radiator units.

“They can sell them to a salvage yard. When times are down, they are getting pretty decent money out of them,” Sarna said.

Most of the time air conditioning thieves target commercial businesses or construction sites, typically at night. Police do check in with salvage yards when they notice a rash of thefts.

Roger Helm, of Lonnie’s Recycling, 501 Maple St. in North Lawrence, said his company is required by law to take identification and have customers sign in if they sell them more than $50 worth of copper.

He said this summer’s copper business had slowed down compared with a year ago.

On Friday, Lonnie’s Recycling was buying copper for about $2 per pound. He said the air condensers inside air conditioning units are worth 90 cents a pound. Those prices wouldn’t bring in much money for about two to three pounds of copper from an average unit outside a home.

But Helm said larger air conditioning units feature much more copper.

Sarna said the police department can do a security audit for businesses, and the department recommends installing security camera systems for surveillance. He also encouraged companies to put fencing around outside equipment if they can.

The Lawrence copper thefts in the last two weeks all affected businesses. In addition to the Jazzercise units discovered Aug. 3, the same thieves apparently went down the strip mall’s alley and stole an entire unit valued at $5,000 from Warrender Physical Therapy.

At Jazzercise, Wilch said police estimate the thieves took an estimated $200 worth of copper and did $8,000 in damage to the units.

Wilch’s landlord has taken some initiative and installed wooden crates around all of the units in the alley.

The thefts forced Wilch to close for a day and a half before reopening with the new units.

“It’s one thing to think about the hottest day of the year, and it’s bad luck your air conditioner goes out,” she said. “It’s quite another to realize they’re actually gone. Yes, the fact they took it for copper and not because they needed an air conditioner — we kind of just had to laugh because it was way too upsetting and too hot to get too wigged out about.”