Churchgoers shiver after theft

Members of Modesto's First United Methodist Church had to bundle up for Sunday's service after thieves stole copper coils from an air- conditioning unit during the weekend and damaged the building's heating system.

"Some of them went out and got blankets from their cars and we cuddled up," said Deanna Salter, chairwoman of the church's board of trustees. "It was definitely cold. Even the jewelry around my neck was cold."

It was about 55 degrees in the sanctuary, Salter said. Two hundred to 250 people attended the 10 a.m. service.

This weekend's was the church's third copper theft in as many years. Sometime Friday night to Sunday morning, thieves snipped away a chain-link fence protecting the church's equipment and slipped through it. They targeted a unit that wasn't visible from the alley by the church.

"They peeled it back and opened it like a can opener," Salter said.

Metal theft is a growing national crime, fueled by methamphetamine addiction, and has wreaked particular havoc in the valley. During a 12-month period ending in August, metal theft cost Modestans at least $215,000.

The losses included many high- profile thefts, such as the wiring from air conditioners at Davis High School worth about $15,000, a hefty sign from the Great Valley Center and an antique "moonshine still" made of solid copper that was earmarked for the McHenry Museum.

To discourage metal thieves, Stanislaus County passed an ordinance in April that tightened rules for how recyclers buy scrap metal. Modesto, Turlock, Newman, Patterson, Riverbank, Merced and San Joaquin County passed similar ordinances.

The ordinances require those selling metal to take checks rather than cash payments, show identification and jump through other hoops that make it harder for metal thieves to profit.

For victims, however, the fight against metal theft can feel like a losing battle, Salter said.

"We keep trying to outsmart them, but you can't," she said.

Insurance likely will pay for repairs or to replace the unit, but the church, at 850 16th St., has to cover a $500 or $1,000 deductible. Salter estimated a new unit could cost about $1,800.

"We'll have to try to make a more secure fence around it, but it's just about impossible if they want to get in," she said. "You can just make it a little harder. That's about all you can do."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.