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Two Clearwater men accused in string of air conditioner thefts

CLEARWATER — Witnesses helped police track down two men accused of stealing several air-conditioning units over the past two weeks and selling them as scrap metal, according to reports.

"They saw two people who were acting suspicious and they called police, which is what we always encourage people to do," said Clearwater police spokeswoman Beth Watts. "This was extremely helpful in this case."

William E. Zepp, 29, of 407 Jupiter Ave., No. 5, was arrested Wednesday. James M. Burns, 28, of 1675 Cleveland St., was arrested Thursday.

Both men are charged with five counts of burglary of a dwelling, five counts of grand theft and one count of attempted burglary. Each admitted to the burglaries when interviewed by police, Watts said.

According to arrest reports, neighbors on Gentry Street saw the two men trying to steal an air-conditioning unit at 1545 Gentry around 2:30 a.m. Jan. 26. The witnesses took down the tag number of Burns' red Jeep Cherokee and called police.

The two men took off when they saw the witnesses and left the air conditioner behind, but it was heavily damaged from their attempt to remove it, reports show.

The witnesses were later able to identify Zepp and Burns from a photo pack, police said.

Police said they have linked the men to the thefts of five other air conditioners: on Jan. 25 at 1470 Parkwood St.; Jan. 23 at 800 S Prospect Ave.; Jan. 22 at 1828 Barbara Lane; Jan. 20 at 1469 Druid Road and Jan. 18 at 1154 Palmetto St.

The units ranged in value from $1,500 to $2,500 and were sold to a recycling business in Clearwater as scrap metal, according to reports.

The company could not be reached for comment Friday.

Various unit components can be scrapped for money, said Michael Moritz, vice president of operations at Anclote Metal Recycling in Tarpon Springs, which was not involved in this case.

Copper piping brings in about $3.20 a pound and units may contain anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds. Insulated wire goes for $1.10 a pound right now and units can have "a couple pounds," Moritz said.

The big item is radiators, which have aluminum copper tubing inside.

"That itself is worth $1.40 a pound and those can easily weigh 20 pounds," he said.

Most recycling centers, including Anclote Metal, work closely with law enforcement to report suspected thieves, Moritz said.

On Friday afternoon, Burns was being held in the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $79,000 bail. Zepp was being held without bail for violating his probation on drug charges.

Watts offered some suggestions for protecting your home from would-be thieves, including fences and dogs.

"If thieves have to work to get it, they may pass up your home in search for an easier target," Watts said.

Other precautions include home security systems and motion-activated lighting. One of the greatest deterrents is witnesses.

"No thief wants to be around watchful eyes," Watts said. "If neighbors are around and watching, the thieves (will) probably opt for another area where they can stay out of sight and out of mind."

Watts reminded residents to try to get a description of suspects, their vehicles and tag numbers if they notice something that seems odd.

"Policing is a partnership between the police and residents, and this is a perfect example of a case where it worked," she said.

Rita Farlow can be reached at (727) 445-4157 or farlow@sptimes.com.

Two Clearwater men accused in string of air conditioner thefts 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:52pm]
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