Construction equipment used to vandalize unfinished school

Cost of repairing damage to Ellicott City elementary estimated at $100,000

December 31, 2002|By Tricia Bishop and Liz Kay | Tricia Bishop and Liz Kay,SUN STAFF

Fred LeMaster is usually the first to arrive at the Bellows Spring Elementary School construction site each morning. But when he swung his truck headlights around yesterday before dawn, he saw someone had already been there -- someone bent on destruction instead of construction.

LeMaster's office trailer lay on its side, and two other trailers nearby were down, one hanging partially over a cliff.

"My first thought was that the wind blew it over," said LeMaster, who is one of the construction superintendents. "Then I saw the other trailers and the school. They tore the hell out of the inside of the school."

The Ellicott City school, which is about 60 percent complete, looked as if it had been demolished.

Three bulldozer-sized holes had been ripped through its brick walls. Glass shards from custom-made windows carpeted the concrete floors, and the metal frames above them were torn and twisted out of shape. Inside, formerly sturdy walls sagged, and piles of dry wall were cut nearly in half.

Someone had driven a bulldozer into the school early Sunday, through three classroom pods and out the other side of the building, causing about $100,000 in damage, according to Howard school officials.

But first, the perpetrator stole another dirt-moving machine, called a track loader, from a hotel construction site more than two miles away, at Route 108 and Snowden River Parkway. The vandal or vandals drove it through the woods to the school, crushed one brick wall and abandoned the machine in a ditch before taking up the bulldozer, which was left with a bent exhaust pipe and a smashed window.

"I was just disgusted," schools Deputy Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said of his reaction when he learned about the school. "We've had vandalism before, but nothing ever this bad."

Howard County school officials have seen broken windows, graffiti, even a pipe bomb in a temporary toilet during the construction of Ilchester Elementary, but never damage on this scale.

Cousin said the damage won't affect the opening of the school, scheduled for late August, but it will take valuable time to repair. The windows have to be specially ordered, and time is needed to clear the rubble.

"We'll make up the time some kind of way," Cousin said, "because we have to."

Insurance will cover most of the costs, which could grow as the scene is studied further, but the school system could have to pay up to $10,000 -- its deductible amount -- if the vandal, or vandals, isn't caught.

Police are investigating and have not identified any suspects.

It is difficult to say who would commit such an act, said Cpl. Lisa Myers, a Howard County police spokeswoman. "It could be kids doing a malicious act. It could be disgruntled employees. There are so many `what ifs.'"

County police on patrol in the area heard the beeping of a vehicle backing up, followed by a loud crash at the school site off Old Stockbridge Road about 4 a.m. Sunday, Myers said. They investigated and heard a car drive away on nearby Old Hollow Lane, according to Myers.

Star Construction, which is building a hotel at Snowden River Parkway and Route 108, was renting the track loader. Workers finished using the machine Friday, said division manager Rakesh Bhatt, and readied it to be picked up by the rental company by hiding the keys in a designated spot and filling its gas tank.

"If we hadn't filled it up, they never would have gotten that far," Bhatt said. "It was bad luck."

The track loader and the bulldozer were manufactured by Caterpillar, and all Caterpillar machines can be started with the same key.

"It's not like a car key," said John Swindler, who manages the company that owns the track loader, Rentals Unlimited. "It's not unreasonable to assume there are a lot of keys out there."

But there aren't a lot of drivers.

"It took someone with some skill," Cousin said. "Whoever it was had some knowledge of how to operate the equipment and do those dangerous things."

The work of several trades has been affected, said William Brown, the county's director of school construction, including: masonry, dry wall, windows, metal framing, and electrical and plumbing systems.

"It's one damn thing after another," Brown said. "All sorts of things go wrong on a site. But as long as the building's still up, we can deal with it."

A reward of up to $2,000 is being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction. People with information are urged to call Detective Thomas Rukamp with tips: 410-313-4763.

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