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Copper thieves target school, businesses on South Side

Workers restore power to Holy Angels School

Sharlen Electric Co. works on restoring power to Holy Angels Catholic School. The middle school was forced to close for the second time in a week after the electric copper wiring was stolen. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Copper thefts shut down two businesses and a school recently on the South Side, part of a reoccurring problem in the area.

The latest victim was Holy Angels Catholic School in the Oakland neighborhood. The theft shut off the power, forcing the school to cancel classes last Tuesday – for the second time in less than a week.

“We are looking at about $18,000 in damages for $1,000 worth of copper wiring,” said Bob Lyons, the engineer for Holy Angels Catholic School.

The thieves took about 360 feet of copper electrical wire. In May, a similar theft happened at Captain’s Hard Time Dining in Chatham, shutting down the business for days. And in Park Manor, 5 Loaves Eatery was forced to close a week ago Sunday when copper wires were stripped from its building. A Harold’s Chicken location, which shares a building with 5 Loaves, also lost power.

Severed copper lines behind Holy Angels School

Electrical copper wiring cut behind Holy Angels Catholic School in the Oakland neighborhood. The copper wires have been stolen twice over a five day period. | Manny Ramos /Sun-TImes

Lyons said they plan to install a cage to protect the power lines in the alley and also will hire an armed security guard to work overnight. Constance Simms-Kincaid, co-owner of 5 Loaves Eatery, said she will meet with the Chatham Business Association to see how they can better protect themselves.

“We lost upwards of $2,000 worth of food when the electricity went out. It’s a small amount to some, but it is a big chunk [of money] to us,” said Simms-Kincaid.

According to Chicago Police, sometime between 4 p.m. Aug. 27 and 6 a.m. Aug. 28, electrical wiring was stolen from the alley of the building where 5 Loaves Eatery operates. A police report was also filed by Holy Angels for both of its thefts. Chicago Police said no one is in custody for any of the incidents.

Like Holy Angels, Simms-Kincaid said the copper wiring from her electrical system has been targeted repeatedly — four thefts in the past seven years. The first theft forced her business to close for nearly four months.

“We were really struggling, and it really knocked us off our feet,” Simms-Kincaid said. “I was forced to get another job just so I could pay my employees in time when payroll was due.”

5 Loaves Eatery and Harold’s Chicken storefront. | Manny Ramos / Sun-Times

“Thieves are so determined to get the copper wiring from the electrical wires that they will do it during a thunderstorm, in front of cameras or even in front of people. They just don’t care who it affects,” Simms-Kincaid said.

The copper wiring being stolen runs from the back of the building and to the exterior power lines; the dark, hidden alleys are a prime target for thieves.

An employee at Barry’s Metal Inc., a Southwest Side business that purchases scrap metals, says it’s hard to determine if someone is trying to sell stolen copper.

“Electrical wires have a rubber or plastic material that wraps around the copper inside. That material has a city number; if we see that, we turn them away,” said manager Donna Calin, noting it’s illegal for them to purchase city property. “But if that rubber cover is stripped off, there is no way of knowing it belongs to the city. It becomes untraceable.”

For some, the danger of stealing electrical wires is worth it.

“These guys are not only risking getting caught by police when they do this, but they are also risking getting electrocuted,” said Lyons, the Holy Angels School engineer. “Whoever it is, they know what they are doing.”