By Samantha Herstine
Larry Koester has worked in the dry cleaning business for over 25 years. He is facing a problem he's never dealt with before. Someone tore apart the outside air conditioning unit at his store on Millwood Avenue to get the copper tubing and parts.
"I ran up there and found out that the entire unit on the outside of the building demolished...somebody had ripped the top off and taken the insides of it out, the copper parts," Koester recalled. "It definitely makes you feel like you have been violated," he said.
The copper in Koester's air conditioner is worth less than $15 dollars if it's sold for recycling, but it's going to cost him $5,000 dollars to replace the unit.
Columbia police say over 225 businesses, homes, and churches were targets of copper thieves since August 2010.
Brown Chapel A.M.E Church off of Bluff Road was hit by copper thieves in early February. Their air conditioning unit was ripped apart and then stripped of copper. Their video camera showed the thief taking apart the unit, but no one has been arrested.
The Richland County Sheriff's Department is working to combat copper theft. Investigator Scott Blair says copper theft is more widespread than the City of Columbia.
"There has been an increase on the outlying areas ...it covers all of us," Blair said.
Blair said many of the police agencies around the Midlands are working together to catch copper thieves.
"I think with the help of legislators and law enforcement being vigilant and arresting people doing this it would slow down a bit," he said.
Richland County Representative Jimmy Bales (D) has proposed a new state law that would make it harder for someone to sell stolen copper. The law would require people who want to sell copper to go to the sheriff's department to get a permit.
The salvage yard would have to check the permit, a driver's license, and get the seller's address. It would also require the buyer to pay with a check instead of cash.
Bales said many people have called and complained about the copper thefts.
"The people who are victims...they are happy... they really want something done," Bales said.
Kurt Richardson is the vice president of Mid-Carolina Steel and Recycling in Fairfield County. He says he already works with the police department to catch thieves.
"We have records...the computer can research and track purchase histories from people," Richardson said.
Richardson agreed copper theft is a big problem. He looks out for stolen copper.
"We turn away business if we feel it's not legitimate," he said.
Koester is taking precautions to avoid being targeted by copper thieves again.
"We've got cameras on all the stores," he said.
Koester has insurance but many people in similar situations can't afford to replace their air conditioning unit.