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Burglary team stripping vacant L.A. buildings bare

A team of burglars has been roaming the streets of downtown Los Angeles, search for aging, vacant buildings they can strip bare.

Over the last year, at least four buildings have been stripped clear of copper wiring and other metals during brazen heists that often take days to complete. Police estimate each job can yield $1 million or more in metals — and cost much more for property owners to repair the damage.

On Thursday, detectives said they caught one alleged member of the team in the act at the old Garfield Building at 8th and Hill streets. Police swarmed the building after being alerted by construction workers who noticed wet footprints and heard voices.

SWAT officers and police dogs crept through the 1928 Art Deco tower in complete darkness, dodging a pipe booby trap the burglars apparently had set up.

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They arrested a suspect hiding in a dusty corner on the seventh floor.

Police believe he and others spent days ripping out newly installed copper wiring from walls, stripping transformers of wire and stealing pipe and sprinkler heads from the 13-floor structure.

They found that the burglars apparently had lowered a massive transformer from an upper floor to the basement, using old fire hoses. The basement was stacked with piles of items the burglars planned to remove, police said.

Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Paul Vernon said officers believe the team also stripped the vacant Commercial Exchange Building across the street, which, like the Garfield, is being renovated. The estimated loss at that building was $1 million.

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Suspect David Gardner, 50 of Reno was led away in handcuffs from the Garfield Building.

“We are booking him for a burglary from September, when $1.5 million worth of copper and other metals were taken. That time he was seen with tools but fled,” Vernon said. “We believe he is part of a crew or crews who targeted these grand old buildings that are being restored.”

The burglars at the Garfield went to elaborate lengths, somehow tapping into the power supply to run lights and the heavy tools needed to take the items.

Witnesses told police that a van, truck and Japanese import car had been seen parked in back of the vacant building, and detectives believe the vehicles were used to move the stolen items.

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Police said the thieves burn off insulation to get to wires and burrow into walls seeking valuable copper, which sells for $4.22 a pound.

The burglars only make pennies on the real value of the copper and often work for others who take most of the profits, investigators said.

Most of the metal is sold to recyclers in Southern California and within days is bound for countries such as China and India, whose rapidly growing economies have enormous needs for metals.

For the burglars, it can be a dangerous business. In October, a man was electrocuted and his wife was burned as they stripped wire from an underground vault in South Gate. Two men were killed last year in Riverside County while stealing copper from a utility vault.

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The Garfield appeared to be a potentially lucrative spot for the ring. In addition to copper wiring, the thieves had stacked large amounts of pipe and sprinkler heads in the basement.

richard.winton@latimes.com


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