Church heat pump theft stumps cops, puzzles parishioners

How the crooks snatched them a mystery – what the criminals intend to do with air conditioning units is puzzling – and who did it remains a mystery …

The clergy, staff, and the members of Rivercrest Community Church say they’re startled and troubled by the theft of all of their outdoor HVAC units.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
In this usually quiet Wilkes neighborhood, in the far northeast corner of outer East Portland, a crime of huge proportions was perpetrated in the wee hours of February 7.

“Everything was there after choir practice on Monday night,” reported Shari Austero, the office manager of Rivercrest Community Church on NE 148th Avenue. “The choir left a little after 9 p.m.”

But, the following morning, when Pastor Ron Laughlin arrived at about 8:00 a.m., it did not escape his attention that seven of the eight large exterior HVAC units had vanished.

Some of the beefy “heat pump” units were taken from areas between undamaged shrubs and the church.

Empty spaces on the concrete pad mark where the large, commercial heat pump units sat – until Monday night.

“I’m told the combined weight of the units,” Austero added, “is about five tons! They just cut the lines and took them.”

Asked why one unit was left behind, Austero said, “Everyone, even the police, say that they probably didn’t have enough space on the truck for that one.”

Rob, who is with Gohman Mechanical, Inc – the company that originally installed the units – was busy resetting the church’s backup heating system, when he paused to talk with East County News about the stolen HVAC units.

Thieves hacked through the electrical, control, and refrigerant lines before making off with seven HVAC heat pump units.

“We put in these in about five years ago,” Rob said. “You can see by the conduit and piping that we took great care to make it look good, because it was all out in the open.”

The technician said that, because of the curb and the bushes, they couldn’t use a forklift to install the heat pumps, each of which weights roughly 800 lbs. “We had to make two trips with our heavy-duty 26-foot-long flatbed truck when we brought them here to the church. And, we hired a crane to lift them into place.”

Since there were no tire tracks, and no damaged shrubbery – just how the criminals removed them puzzles him, Rob said. “Clearly, several people had to be involved to move all these units.”

He added, “The stolen boxes are ‘heat pump’ units; all the controls and the rest of the equipment is inside the church. Without all of their switchgear and inside systems, the units are useless. And, with the scrap price of copper way down – it doesn’t hardly seem worth the effort stealing them for scrap.”

The church will meet and function as usual, Austero said. “We do have backup heat – we left the original system in place – but it’s really expensive to operate.”

Although the loss is mostly covered by their insurance, the loss of these heat pumps is a troubling one to the congregation of a church that holds community events throughout the year.

The total estimated loss from the theft is about $63,000, Austero commented. “But we are very blessed, our insurance will cover much of the loss.”

At this point, Portland Police Public Information Officer Lt. Robert King told us, “There is no suspect information or surveillance video, and detectives are asking for the public’s help to solve this crime.”
Anyone with information about this theft, or the location of these stolen heat pumps, is urged to contact the Portland Police Bureau by sending an email to CrimeTips@PortlandOregon.gov, and reference Case #12-11034.

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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