MODESTO — A thief stole 38 bronze plaques late Saturday or early Sunday from a memorial garden at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Modesto. Each 3-by-8-inch rectangle gave the name of one or two people and the dates of their birth and death.
The earliest: Carl Broden, who was born in 1881 and died in 1955. The most recent was Ruth Runsten, who died in December 2011.
"Nothing is sacred to criminals," said Modesto police Sgt. Rick Applegate.
The most recent plaque cost about $191, said Arie Kroeze, a member of Emanuel. Recycling centers would pay only a fraction of that perhaps $2 to $5 if the centers even would buy such personal items.
Kroeze built the church's memorial wall in 1999 and helps maintain the small courtyard feature, which includes two concrete benches, a wall fountain and a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi.
"I know by reading the paper that people will take any piece of metal that they'll get a nickel for," Kroeze said. "A couple of months ago, we lost parts of our air conditioner. But these have names and dates. Who would take these?"
Unfortunately, said law enforcement officers who deal with stolen metal, there are plenty of thieves who would steal even memorial plaques.
"It's a huge problem in our county," said Sgt. Anthony Bejaran of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. Schools, businesses, churches and even residential property are vulnerable. Ranchers and farmers "take a bigger hit than anyone else," he said.
"These people have no conscience whether they're stealing from a residential home or a church," Bejaran said. "They're feeding their drug habit, or they don't want to work, so they spend all night out stealing and all day recycling."
He said two detectives who specialize in metal theft have been working with recyclers in the county to try to "identify what they should consider suspicious," he said. "When you have people show up with a lot of copper or brass, or something stamped with the name of a business, there's a high probability those things have been stolen."
Modesto Junk Co. co-
owner Keith Highiet said laws put into place in 2008 have helped recyclers fight the problem of stolen metal.
"If you don't have a business license or a contractor's license, you have to wait three days to get paid (for scrap metal such as copper and brass)," he said. "We take a picture of you with the item you bring in. We take your driver's license information and your thumbprint if you get cash. Every day, we take our records from the previous day to the Police Department.
"The first rule is, if it doesn't look right, don't (buy) it."
Highiet said Emanuel's memorial plaques, because of the personal information, would raise "a total red flag. It's not even a close call."
And, he said, the thief wouldn't get much money for them, anyway. Brass pays about $1.50 to $2 a pound perhaps $80 for all of them.
"I just hope whoever took them won't find out they're not worth much and dump them," Kroeze said.
He said he will refinish the wall, which is scarred from where the plaques once were attached with glue and rosette screws. Then the church will replace the markers but "will look at other options, something without metal."
In the meantime, the church has put metal cages around its air-conditioning units.
Metal thefts and similar problems have hit other churches in the past year.
St. Stanislaus hit
St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto had all of the copper tubing in three roof-mounted air conditioners stolen from its hall on J Street. One unit had to be replaced, and the other two repaired. The church has installed alarmed locks on the units.
Last summer, thieves dismantled a roof-mounted air conditioner at The Carpenter's House in west Modesto.
"It had to be fully replaced," said the Rev. Chuck Adams. "On Christmas Eve, another attempt was made on one of our air conditioners mounted on ground level. This one will require over $2,000 to fix. We have alarmed all of our air conditioners so they are connected 24-7."
CrossPoint Community Church reported "tons" of similar problems, including light pole wiring stolen two weeks ago, brass water meters, stolen metal grates "and so on and so on," said the Rev. Matt Whiteford. He said it is an ongoing, weekly problem for the downtown Modesto church.
The Rev. Dave Kerr of Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Modesto said it has had more problems with vandalism and thefts of computers and phones than of metal. Putting up fences and having security on site has cut down on such incidents, he said.
St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto lost copper from one air-conditioning unit in October and had four units stolen last summer. The Rev. Mark Wagner said installing cages over the units has prevented subsequent thefts, but the church also has had break-ins involving buildings and cars.
Metal theft, said Applegate, is huge and shows no sign of abating.
Giant toll from cheap part
"The economic impact that it has had on the community is much bigger than the (recycled) price of metal itself," he said. "The cost to replace them is greater than what the thieves get for them. Somebody steals $5 worth of copper from an air conditioner, and it costs $15,000 to replace it."
He said he doesn't know the total dollar amount of metal theft loss in the area, but "it's in the multimillions, just in our community alone. It affects all of us. That cost is being passed on by the insurance companies or by the businesses that have to find a way to recoup their costs."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.