Police continued today to search for the suspects who stole four air conditioning units and damaged three others at St. Peter Claver Catholic School.
Investigators say crooks often target AC units for the valuable copper components inside, and the 116-year-old school is just the latest on a growing list of crime scenes.
Tampa police Special Investigator Daniel Hinsz heads a newly formed task force dedicated to investigating copper thefts in the city.
He said the number of cases has more than tripled so far this year compared to all of last year with more than 250 copper thefts already on the books.
"Copper is going for close to $3 a pound," Hinsz said. "The more the prices go up, the more there's vacant houses, the more that there's vacant apartments there's opportunity. And as always, if there's opportunity there's someone willing to take advantage of it."
Most stolen air conditioners and stolen copper wiring end up in scrap yards around the area, detectives said. Scrap yard owners get thumbprints, photo identification and tag numbers of every person who turns in metal for money which does help in the event of a criminal investigation, but police say the crimes are becoming so common it's hard to keep up.
"We're averaging five to 10 thefts a week," Hinsz said.
There is one thing the public can do, according to Tampa's copper theft task force. Be on the lookout for neighbors, or anyone for that matter, who dismantles air conditioners in their backyard.
Detectives also say thieves will often set fire to copper wiring in order to burn off the plastic covering and ultimately get more money for the scrap. Those wire fires give off a very black smoke, investigators say.
As for the St. Peter Claver School case, detectives are still following up leads.
"I'm optimistic. We're trying real hard," Hinsz said.
But as with any crime, the longer it goes "the harder it gets" he said.