First United Church of Christ, 1000 Elgin Avenue, has had its gutters stolen on three separate occasions in recent months, according to police reports. In addition, nine North Oak Park residences and two Oak Park churches have had one or more copper downspouts stolen between Jan. 25 and Feb. 2. The afternoon of Feb. 2 a man was observed taking down two copper downspouts from the Grace Episcopal Church, 924 Lake St. in Oak Park. When confronted, the man ran off with the gutters.

Police say the reason for the thefts is that copper is a valuable metal that brings in good money when scraped. Copper doesn’t lose value after being made into wire and downspouts, retaining up to 90 percent of the cost of the original copper. Loss estimates from several recent thefts back that up, ranging from $100 for a single 9-foot downspout to $1000 when two downspouts and three gutters were reported stolen at First United on Jan. 10. One thief went straight to the source overnight Feb 2, stealing five cartons containing 500 copper fittings from a heating contractor in Oak Park. That theft netted metal valued at $2,012.

“Obviously part of the problem is that they’ve got copper gutters. (Thieves) are not going to take the time to get aluminum gutters because they’re not going to get the turnaround,” said Forest Park Police Chief James Ryan.

“Obviously they’ll sell it for the copper,” said Oak Park Deputy Chief of Police Bob Scianna, who added that the village goes through rashes of such thefts from time to time, noting that the thefts are primarily one of opportunity for low-tech thieves looking for a quick, relatively easy and lucrative score.

The most recent theft at First United was reported by a maintenance worker on Jan. 23 who told police he arrived at work to find two copper gutters measuring about 30-feet missing. First United president Patrick Oberg told police that a 10-foot downspout section had also been stolen from the church about three months ago, but the incident was not reported because the gutter company replaced it for free.

Ryan said that he did not know that the First United thefts were part of an area wide trend, but that he would contact Oak Park and River Forest Police in order to organize an investigation to determine where the stolen gutters are being taken.

“More than likely, they’re staying local,” he said, noting that he was aware of one junkyard in Cicero that had purchased similar stolen goods in the past.

Ryan explained that junkyards could be treated much like pawn shops during such an investigation. “Our guys routinely go around and check area pawn shops, because they keep documentation, and compare logs with anything that’s been taken in a burglary. It’s been pretty successful, and we’ve made arrests,” he said.

While police can step up their presence in the area, Scianna said the best chance for a break will be if some resident sees a suspicious vehicle capable of hauling the lengthy stolen goods away and calls police.

“We need somebody to report a suspicious van or pickup,” he said.

“People should report any suspicious activity they see, (including) people milling around dismantling something that seems kind of odd,” said Ryan.

River Forest police have dealt with numerous incidents of gutter and downspout theft as well. Last April, someone stole two 15-foot sections of copper gutter from the River Forest Commons Condominiums, 1 Gale St., the third time in a week that building had been hit by thieves. The very next night, someone called police to report that they had observed someone attempting to steal yet more copper gutter. River Forest police stopped an individual who matched the witness’s description. However, police had no physical evidence of any crime, and the witness refused to cooperate, so the man was released without charges. The gutters were recovered at the scene.

The gutter-theft phenomenon is not limited to the western suburbs or just to copper. An Associated Press article in the Monday Chicago Tribune reported that the problem extends throughout the United States, and overseas.

Prices for scrap copper and aluminum are up substantially, and so is the motive for stealing it. Pure copper, the article notes, currently sells for about $2.10 a pound, and aluminum about $1.05. Scrap copper is bringing between $1.30 and $1.80 a pound, about double what it was a year ago. The demand for those metals, the article noted, is expected to continue.

“Seth Stern contributed to this report.