Charles George had two 10-foot portions of copper gutter stolen… (Kim Hairston/Baltimore…)
They came for Benjamin Feldman's copper gutters the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, ripping two 10-foot sections from each side of his stone house in Homeland.
Last week, someone made off with downspouts from a house around the corner.
There was another theft, and several attempted, on nearby Saint Dunstans Road. A month ago on North Charles Street, a Homeland homeowner chased away two would-be gutter thieves in the middle of the afternoon. A home in Ruxton was stripped of its copper on Tuesday.
The current criminal interest in copper is the newest twist to an old problem — and one that has long frustrated law enforcement in Baltimore and beyond. Despite repeated efforts, police have been unable to stop the thieves, or the unscrupulous scrap metal buyers who they say fuel the industry by bartering — no questions asked.
The 62-year-old Feldman mutes his criticism of authorities, noting the shootings and drug dealing that consumes other neighborhoods and taxes the resources of police.
"We don't have violent crime in Homeland," he said. "The worst thing here is that somebody has an argument over who to vote for."
Still, anger mounts as thefts continue and estimates pour in — as much as $1,600 to replace the missing gutters on St. Alban's Way.
"We're being cannibalized," said Feldman, who moved to Homeland 11 years ago, after living two decades in a stately rowhouse on Lafayette Square in Sandtown-Winchester, where he said the neighborhood disintegrated around him.
Residents in Homeland are firing off emails to police commanders, City Hall officials and the media, hoping publicity gets them the attention they say their five-figure property tax payments have not.
On Friday, Feldman's housemate, Charles George, inspected a jury-rigged plastic downspout he bought for $20 and installed on one side of the house until he can get the copper replaced. He'll have to do it soon to adhere to the covenant restrictions that he enforces as a member of Homeland's architectural review committee.
"These thieves don't know how this stuff ruins people's lives and their peace of mind," said George, who shelled out $800 to install motion sensitive spotlights on two tall trees flanking the Georgian-style home.
"Now we're on edge," the 63-year-old architect said. "We have to worry about where we live." Noting the repair estimate fell below the insurance deductible, he said, "You pay to live in the city."
But thieves aren't targeting only Baltimore. Louise Dorrett said she returned to her Ruxton home on Tuesday and found several sections of her vertical copper gutters missing. She had replaced them after the blizzard two years ago and she doesn't want to make another claim with her insurance.
"I can't deal with this happening again," said Dorrett, who has lived in the Baltimore County community for 17 years. "And it doesn't appear that this is something that's going to be resolved. I didn't get the sense that the police were all that interested."
Baltimore City police responded almost immediately to the complaints in Homeland with promises of more patrols and better efforts to determine if the recent thefts are the work of one person or a group. While the theft at Feldman's house was brazen — gutters ripped off the front — police said most thieves are taking gutters off garages in back alleys.
Maj. Sabrina V. Tapp-Harper, who commands the Northern District police station, said she will ask the department's legislative liaison to seek tighter laws governing how scrap yards collect and report information on people hauling in loose metal.
The major also said she'd like the law to require scrap dealers to wait 48 hours before completing transactions, giving police a chance to catch up to stolen goods.
"If a victim makes a report to law enforcement, we'll have time to check out the dealers," Tapp-Harper said. "This is not just a problem in North Baltimore. It's everywhere. … I think it's so easy to offload these things."
City police and other officials already have tried to impose stricter scrutiny of the scrap trade. The city and Baltimore County were among the first jurisdictions in the state to require the dealers to report each transaction to authorities.
But state lawmakers, who set out to implement similar requirements across Maryland, ended up compromising to win the support of the industry. The law they passed last year supersedes city and county ordinances, but police say it has less teeth.
The new law requires the dealers to keep electronic records of transactions and makes them put some items "on hold" to give police a chance to find stolen goods before they're melted down. It also bars dealers from buying items that have been frequent targets of thieves, including catalytic converters, metal beer kegs, cemetery urns, tree grates, water meters, street signs, guardrails, light poles and grave markers.