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Copper thief strikes big box stores — and a church with parishoners inside

ST. PETERSBURG — Steven Duane Branesky is accused of destroying more than $300,000 worth of property just to steal $5,000 worth of copper, according to St. Petersburg police.

Branesky, 23, is charged with stripping air-conditioning units of valuable copper elements, damaging them in the process. His brief but allegedly destructive reign this month was halted by his Dec. 12 arrest on multiple criminal charges.

The copper raids started at night on the roof of the vacant Circuit City store in the Tyrone area, police said, then continued at a Ross Dress for Less and a Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q, then ended with a daring daylight raid on a church — while parishioners were meeting inside.

"It appears that he had a drug addiction that was fueling his crime spree," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt. "He was becoming more brazen as time went on. The last one he hit was a church, during the middle of the day, while it was open.

"We're glad to get him off the streets."

The theft at the Circuit City at 2066 Tyrone Blvd. N came to light first, police said. The vacant store's property manager discovered 11 rooftop air-conditioner units stripped on Dec. 2.

Police said they found no signs of forced entry. The thief appeared to have placed a ladder on top of a cardboard compactor.

"All of the exterior panels have been removed and all of the copper tubing cut out," according to a police report. "All of the insulated wiring has been cut out. All of the coils have been removed. Other coaxial cable from the rooftop has also been cut and removed."

But police said Branesky was already leaving a trail for them. They found his fingerprints on the roof of Circuit City, and they found a Pinellas Park recycling center that said Branesky had been selling scrap metal there recently.

Then on Dec. 4, police learned the roof of the Ross store next to the Circuit City had also been hit. Two units were dismantled. Detectives said they later learned that Branesky sold some copper air-conditioning coils to the recycler similar to the ones used by the Ross store. The sale occurred the same day the theft was discovered.

Then three large air conditioners and a cooler were hit at Sonny's at 3650 Tyrone Blvd. on Dec. 11. That same day, police said, Branesky sold copper components similar to those stolen from Sonny's. A surveillance video showed a white minivan backing up to the restaurant at the time of the crime.

But Branesky apparently struck twice on Dec. 11, according to police. That's when he was caught trying to strip the air conditioner at the Park Street Baptist Church at 3901 Park St. N.

But the pastor knew no one was supposed to be repairing the unit. Church members went outside and Branesky took off. But they got the license plate of the minivan he was driving and later picked his photo out of a lineup, police said.

That same minivan was later found parked in front of Branesky's residence. He was arrested on Dec. 12 on five counts of grand theft, four counts of criminal mischief and single counts of misdemeanor battery and driving with a suspended or revoked license. He was released the next day in lieu of $20,300 bond.

"He confessed," Proffitt said. "Not to all the crimes, but to most of them."

Police said they're not done with their investigation. Seven rooftop air conditioners on the top of a Wal-Mart warehouse at 3200 Tyrone Blvd. were found gutted on Dec. 10. The damage was estimated at about $94,000. No arrests have been made in that case, but police said Branesky is a suspect.

Meanwhile, the patrons of Park Street Baptist Church said they're praying for the man accused of wrecking their air conditioner, and praying that they don't need it any time soon.

"That's why the Lord brought this cold spell," said associate pastor Tom Gorman, 64.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Copper thief strikes big box stores — and a church with parishoners inside 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 10:57pm]
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