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You may have experienced the complete frustration of having your HVAC system completely destroyed by thieves who don’t mind destroying tens of thousands of dollars in equipment to reach the mother load of $50 in copper and scrap metal.

Vowing to never have this happen again, you may have spent good money installing lighting, fencing, security cameras, locks, or to hire a guard to prowl the grounds in an attempt to stop would be thieves from causing so much damage just to obtain the metal which lies within.

This is a major problem for churches because so often the campus is empty overnight making the HVAC system a tempting target.

In Witchita, Kansas, local authorities seeking to stem the problem have come up with a new plan of attack. In an attempt to dissuade the greedy copper thieves, prosecutors are trying to bring the full weight of the federal government upon their heads with the threat of doing time “in the big house.”

I guess it worked for Al Capone. They couldn’t get him for all the murder, mayhem and bootlegging, so they hit him with federal tax laws.

In this instance, local detectives came upon a new way of looking at the crime. Usually, local and state laws applied to this crime consisting of trespassing, vandalism and theft.

State and county courts are usually inundated with local crimes, and the outcomes like refusual of charges or probation are often less than desirable leaving the victims feeling like justice is often denied.

How could a simple theft offense be turned into a federal crime?

Going Green

Byron Stuckey, known in the area as a suspect in HVAC thefts as far back as seven years ago, was recently hit with a federal indictment for a a few more recent thefts.

He is accused of releasing Freon, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon, when he allegedly cust copper tubing in units stolen in 2012 and 2014.

Stuckey faces three counts of venting a Class II substance in violation of federal law. Each count carries a potential sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine.

Captain, Jose Salcido said, “It redefines the way we are going to go after people that take air conditioners.” He said he wants potential copper thieves to think twice before they steal air conditioners. “It is a federal crime any time they cut that line.”

Cutting one line can release 4 to 6 pounds of Freon into the atmosphere.

Church Security Camera Catches The Crime In Progress

The indictment alleges in 2008, Stuckey stole air conditioning units and sold the copper and parts to scrap yards around Witchita. On June 19, 2012, a security camera at a Witchita church allegedly captured an image of Stuckey removing the cover of a AC unit and then cutting and draining the Freon line.

On June 27, 2012, the police caught Stuckey red handed after they caught him cutting the lines to AC units at another church. The church refused to prosecute.

The case was completed when authorities were able to link AC units turned in for scrap back to Stuckey.

Lt. Joe Shroeder, head of the detective unit was searching for a way to make the crime have more teeth. He contacted the EPA, which revealed it was in fact a federal environmental crime. Consultations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office resulted in a federal indictment being handed down.

Two Training Points

I found one of the more interesting things about this case was that a crime had been caught on camera and that the police were able to use the images to actually identify the man. Sometimes this is the point that can hold up the case. Old equipment usually returns grainy images and renders any photograph/video evidence useless. How would your church equipment hold up? Would it aid or hinder the investigation?

Many camera units are inexpensive, are infrared, and easily installed. Images can be stored on computers and captured in real time. Consider whether this is a good investment for your church.

Secondly, the church refused to press charges. Churches are nice places filled with nice people, that is why criminals target them. This is often a matter decided by pastors and elder boards and is beyond the call of the security team. Remember, we can only advise and consult, but the decision is left to others. Don’t let it frustrate you, simply determine if there is a more efficient way of handling it.

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