Reverends from several south Baton Rouge churches stood in a small circle Tuesday in the sanctuary of McKowen Missionary Baptist Church, counting on their fingers while adding the number of air conditioning units that were recently targeted by criminals.
“They stole five units from my church, and I’ll tell you, it’s very hard to keep your mind on Jesus when you’re sweating profusely,” said the Rev. Charles Burris Jr., of Greater Morning Star Church. “We came to the Lord to avoid the heat.”
Nearly 30 air conditioning units from six churches were stolen or damaged in the last month by thieves looking to cash in on the copper wiring inside the units, officials said.
Pastors from each of the churches along with police and local elected officials gathered Tuesday to address the escalating issue.
The meeting took place in the stuffy sanctuary of McKowen Missionary Baptist Church, where seven units were destroyed by thieves two weeks ago. The damage totaled $35,000, said the Rev. Gerard Robinson.
“We want to let the perpetrators know that we will not stand silently by as they commit these crimes against us and in our community,” Robinson said. “We’re asking our neighbors and parishioners to become vigilant, and report anything suspicious they see.”
Police do not have many leads in the thefts, said police spokesman Sgt. Donald Stone, adding that investigators are unsure whether all of the crimes are connected.
Some of the pastors said their air conditioning units were meticulously taken apart with just the copper wiring removed. Others said the thieves ripped the entire unit from the ground.
Stone said one of the main problems with catching the thieves is that copper doesn’t have any distinguishing marks, such as serial numbers, and is generally untraceable.
“We can stop a guy who has a truckload of scrap metal, but we’ll have no way to prove whether it was stolen,” Stone said.
A new law that goes into effect Aug. 15 will put additional record-keeping requirements on salvage yards when they purchase copper and other materials.
It requires buyers to document a description of the material sold in addition to the names and addresses of sellers and the license plate numbers of their vehicles.
And the buyers have to pay by check or money order.
If someone sells copper more than once a month, that person would be considered a second-hand dealer and would be required to show proper documentation of how they’re acquiring the copper, Stone said.
The new requirements will create a paper trail that will help law enforcement track the copper thieves, Stone said.
Despite the lack of leads in the cases, Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White said officers “will leave no stone unturned” in their search for the thieves.
“Any theft is a malign behavior, but an offense against the house of the Lord is reprehensible,” White said.
That was a sentiment shared by many speakers at Tuesday’s meeting, who questioned why churches specifically are being targeted and how the criminals could steal from a place of worship.
“Our parishioners were upset, outraged, disturbed,” said Rev. Joseph Armstrong of New St. Luke Baptist Church. “They just can’t believe they would do that to the house of God.”
Churches are the main target, Stone said. There have been few reports of copper being stolen from air conditioning units at homes or businesses.
Several churches in north Baton Rouge were burglarized earlier this year, prompting officials to hold an April news conference about the thefts.
But the religious leaders were resolute in their belief that the criminals would be found, and that they would overcome these hardships.
“I’m not giving up on Baton Rouge,” said Rev. Donald Sterling of Israelite Baptist Church. “I’ve lived here all my life, and it’s still a good place. We just have to solve these crimes.”
Crimes Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and indictment of whoever is responsible for the thefts. The pastors are offering an additional $1,500 reward.
Anyone with information should call Crime Stoppers at (225) 344-7867.