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Alexandra M. Schwappach/Medill

Richard Concaildi, Rogers Park resident, said thieves take less than one minute to take the gutters off the walls of a house and load them in a truck to sell for scrap.

For Chicago bungalow owners, one stolen gutter can mean a historic loss

by Alexandra M. Schwappach
April 12, 2011

It’s the middle of the night.  A truck drives into an alley behind a row of homes.  Two people slip into a yard and, with their bare hands, rip the house’s gutters off from its brick walls. They drag the metal through the yard and toss it into their waiting vehicle. Within one minute, they have disappeared into the night.  

In the morning, residents awake to see that yet another bungalow in the historic district of Chicago has lost its valuable copper gutters to thieves.

This scenario is all too familiar for many homeowners in areas of West Ridge and Rogers Park, who have their copper gutters stolen and sold for scrap.

“These guys are bold and brazen,” said Richard P. Concaildi, who heads up a group of  residents in the 24th District to address community issues with Chicago police. “They come in day or night and rip the gutters right off the sides of the buildings.” 

Thieves usually get $4 per pound of copper. They can rip up to 18 feet of gutters off the wall, but once it is taken to a scrap yard and weighed on a scale, it can amount to only five pounds, earning the criminal roughly $20 per gutter, Concaildi said. 

Criminals are hard to catch because they take less than 60 seconds to steal the spouts; they are usually in common attire and they have temporary plates on their trucks.

“It happens so quickly that the police cannot catch them unless they are literally right around the corner,” Concaildi said. 

Replacing the gutters can be costly, too. Concaildi said each gutter has a water catcher, is hand-crafted and has to be custom installed. The downspout alone can cost up to $100.   

“This trend is really causing homeowners in the historic district a lot of grief,” Concaildi said.  “It can be very expensive to have copper gutters replaced.  You can’t just go over to Home Depot and pick up some new ones.”

Hank Morris, a West Ridge resident who serves on Concaildi’s committee, said these thieves also rely on the lack of police officers in the area to pursue their crimes.

 “[The police]physically can't be everywhere,” he said. “They have little time to do protective drive-bys.”

Gutter thieves often find loopholes to avoid jail time, police said. They frequently work in pairs of two with one person ripping the gutters off the building and throwing it on the street. His  partner then drives up to retrieve it. In court, they argue they just happened to find the copper lying on the street.

Prosecutors usually have little proof the copper was taken straight from the property, so judges have to let them walk.

 “They act with impunity,” Morris said. “When caught, the courts bend into pretzels to find a way to let them off.”

Concaildi said that a couple years ago a father and son were working as a team and had accumulated a substantial sum of copper.  When they were arrested and taken to court, there was no proof they hadn’t just found the copper on the street.  The son was given probation and the case was thrown out.

“There’s no way to really solve the problem, but we urge people to call police when anything from their home is stolen,” Concaildi said.  “It helps police determine what areas to keep an eye on.”