Thieves target La Jolla homes under construction

By Ashley Mackin

Multiple burglaries have been reported at uninhabited houses undergoing renovations in the Muirlands neighborhood of La Jolla. Three houses were broken into more than once in a short period of time. Each report to La Jolla Light stated the burglars often stole large amounts of copper or construction tools and the thieves probably had some construction experience.

The stolen copper is brought to recycling centers and is worth between 10-cents and $3 a pound, depending on the condition. “Clean copper” is worth more.

The earlier of these crimes took place in September, with three break-ins to a property on Avenida Mirola in one month. The foreman for the contractor, Tim Brunning, said approximately $50,000 worth of copper was stolen in total. “They literally cut [out] all the copper plumbing and pulled all the electrical wires out — all three times.”

Since then, as many as 10 other burglaries occurred at other properties, including the home of Tresha and Dan Souza, currently under renovation, which was burglarized twice in two weeks. While the Souzas don’t remember the exact date, they said it was approximately three weeks ago that the first incident took place.

During the first robbery, the window was pried open and a few power tools were stolen. During the second incident, one week later (and after the window had been repaired), the burglars returned and stole copper from the garage.

Dan Souza said the burglars popped the window out of its frame, as they did in the first incident, and went down to the garage where copper piping and pieces from the former house structure was piled high. There, based on the pile of shavings from the exterior of the piping, Souza said they scraped the exterior of the copper, which would have taken five hours.

Several other valuable items were not taken, prompting Tresha Souza to conclude, “What they came for, they got.” A new chainsaw was also stolen, and Dan Souza said he thinks the burglars took it to make it look as though they were workers on the property.

The Souzas said they believe the burglars have construction-trade knowledge because, given the stage of the home remodel, they knew when the copper would be most accessible. The Souzas have since installed video cameras and alarms to protect their property.

Soon after the second Souza incident, Natascha Vossen’s home was burglarized. Vossen said her property, on the corner of Nautilus and Muirlands Vista Way, was broken into and copper, a bucket of tools and a fax machine with its cords were stolen.

Contractor Dave Remington said the copper he uses for plumbing, electrical wires and waterproofing the roof, went missing two weeks ago. “They took all the copper that wasn’t nailed down,” Remington said. Soon after, they went for what was nailed down. In a second incident, there were signs that burglars tried to remove the copper door pan, but were unsuccessful. Several days later, they returned with tools, and removed the door pans and several panels from the roof.

Remington estimates $4,000 worth of copper was stolen in total. “As soon as they see copper going on the roof, they know there’s probably some stored on site. As soon as the doors start going on, they know there is probably a toolbox with tools in it around,” Remington said.

He also said he “fully” believes it is the same two to four people burglarizing all the properties in the area and that they have knowledge of the construction industry. He speculated on their modus operandi, “It would be easy for them to find a cop and follow him with a cell phone while the guys are breaking in ... If you just have a guy tailing the cop around ... you know you’re safe and you’ve got all day unless the neighborhood tries to catch them.”

Vossen said she wants the neighbors to keep an eye out, and has been in contact with police hoping for additional patrol. “I’ve talked to the head detective ... the police are empathic, but basically they can’t do anything,” she said.

San Diego Police Detective Michael Breckenridge, who is assigned to the case, said the Police Department does not have the resources to put additional patrol in that neighborhood. Its Northern Division includes La Jolla, as well as University City, Pacific Beach, North Clairemont and Torrey Pines. He said La Jolla, in comparison, is generally quieter and has a “lower volume of calls to service” than the other areas they cover.

He also said copper theft at construction sites is common because perpetrators are hard to track down due to the volume of copper that gets recycled daily.

Vossen said, given the lack of options, she might try to start a Neighborhood Watch program to catch the perpetrators.