Mobility was a factor when Carroll County recreation officials chose aluminum over wood for bleacher seats. The aluminum needed virtually no maintenance, lasted longer and was easy to transport.
Now it appears maybe too easy.
Over the past seven weeks, thieves have walked away from county parks and school athletic fields with 120 seat slabs.
"We've never had this problem before," said John Little, director of Carroll's Department of Recreation and Parks.
Maryland State Police at the Westminster barracks are searching for clues to the thefts, which began April 17.
The greatest loss was on April 24 and April 25, when 32 slabs were stolen from Smallwood Park in Gamber. The most recent was this week, when an undetermined number of seats were taken from North Carroll Middle School in Hampstead.
Chuck Jackson, a State Police spokesman, said police believe the bandits are selling the seats, which are about a foot wide and 15 to 20 feet long, to recycling centers. The thieves could get more than $50 for 200 pounds of aluminum.
Jackson said police are asking area recyclers whether they have received such material and are warning them about the stolen goods.
Little said the thefts first happened in the Manchester area in mid-April and have become regular occurrences throughout the county since. He believes thieves use power tools to loosen the large bolts that hold the seats onto the bleacher scaffolding.
"They were pretty efficient at what they were doing," he said.
The thefts have forced the county to go back to wood seats, he said. The estimated cost of the stolen aluminum seats was $17,000. The wood replacements cost only $1,440.
Thefts of aluminum bleacher parts are not new in the Baltimore metropolitan area, however.
In Baltimore County, relatively new bleacher steps were stolen from the Loch Raven High School football field earlier this spring.
"We were trying to guess why someone would have just taken the steps," said Diane George, co-chairwoman of physical education and athletics at Loch Raven.
The school plans to replace the aluminum steps with wooden steps before football practice starts in September, she said. In the meantime, she said, gates will be locked to prevent automobiles from driving onto school property.
Catonsville Community College has aluminum bleachers at its baseball field, but they are portable and are brought inside at night, said Susie Bean, who works in the school's physical education department.
But bringing eight aluminum bleachers inside was an impossibili
ty at Baltimore's Lake Clifton High. Six bleachers were stolen from its football field a few months ago, said school spokeswoman Karen V. Poe.
The administration feels they were stolen for recycling, she said.
The value of the loss was estimated at $12,000 to $13,000, she said. The loss of the seating affected graduation as well, she said. Some of the seats were replaced with wooden ones for the ceremony.
In Harford County, thefts of aluminum bleacher seats have occurred four times in the past 1 1/2 years, said William Nicodemus, of the county Department of Recreation and Parks.