With air-conditioner-related thefts up, Sheriff Fleming seeks increased regulation at scrap yards.
Air-conditioning units have become a hot commodity among Flagler County thieves.
According to statistics gathered by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, 30 units were stolen in the first seven months of 2011. That matches the total stolen in all of 2010 and confirms a trend of increasing metal thefts. By comparison, five units were stolen in 2009.
Air-conditioning parts, copper and other scrap metals are also being stolen in greater frequency. The Sheriff’s Office logged a total of 62 air-conditioner and metal thefts in the first seven months of 2011, for a total lost value of $132,364. That already surpasses the total from 2010 (59 thefts for $115,167 in value) and is more than five times the lost value in 2009 ($24,185).
According to Sheriff Donald Fleming, one way residents can fight the thefts is to keep their garage doors closed. He said some reports have shown that suspects have entered residents’ garages and climbed into their attics.
“They hide until the people leave; then, they rob the house,” he said.
Other incidents show that parts of or whole air-conditioning units are being stolen, as well as unsecured metals in residential yards.
Natalie Allman is the manager at John’s Auto Parts & Metals, at 3626 S. U.S. 1, Bunnell. The shop has been open since 1974.
She said all the copper, aluminum and other parts of an air-conditioning unit are worth less than $100 in scrap metal.
Prices are determined by the commodities market. Copper has dipped 75 cents in the past week, she said, but overall, business is good. Thanks to increased demand from China, John’s Auto Parts & Metals has continued to grow, even during the recession. The company recently opened a Palatka location.
The state has regulated scrap metals since 2008. The statute states that metal dealers must keep records of everyone who sells scrap metals to them. The records must include name, address and phone number of the seller; vehicle information; physical description, including height, weight, hair color and eye color; and “right thumbprint, free of smudges and smears.”
In addition, scrap-metal dealers must provide a photograph, video or other digital image of the metals being sold, as well as an image of the seller.
Detectives from the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office are looking for every scrap of evidence they can find to solve cases of stolen metals. Allman said detectives ask her a couple of times per week for information about thefts.
To facilitate that process, Fleming said he is planning to ask the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners to take the state regulation one step further and require the scrap-metal dealers in the county to electronically provide data from each sale. That way, according to the sheriff’s public information officer, Debra Johnson, the detectives won’t have to make requests for information each time — the data will already be available to them.
But Allman said that extra information might not always be useful.
“We’ve asked the detectives before, ‘Is this doing you any good?’” she said, adding that once an air conditioner is taken apart, it can’t be tracked very easily. ”Every little piece of the air conditioner doesn’t have a serial number.”
The state regulations already cost John’s Auto Parts & Metals $30,000 in computer and photography equipment upgrades at the Bunnell location alone, according to Allman. In addition, the costs associated with the Scrap Dragon software are $200 per month.
Still, the incident reports continue to come to Fleming’s office, and he is seeking a solution.
Harold Doutt, 79, of Bunnell, told deputies that he visited the residence of his son, who was traveling. One week, he said the house was undisturbed. The next week, on Sept. 24, he returned to find that the entire outside air-conditioning unit had been removed. Nothing else was missing or damaged. Rain in the area made any attempts at gathering evidence implausible, according to the report. There were no known witnesses.
Two homes on Pineapple Drive were stripped of copper wiring or circuit breakers in late September.
In one home, detectives observed a hole in the ceiling of the master bedroom, indicating that the thief had been in the attic. The victims were given pamphlets on victims’ rights.
Other than, all the victims can do, until more evidence can be collected, is wait.