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When a Buffalo police officer stopped a motorist and his passenger in North Buffalo early Friday morning, he noticed bent and crushed gutters shoved into the back seat of the car.

The greenish sheen on the thick metal told the officer these were not cheap gutters. They were made of copper and ornamental in design.

The men explained that they were “scrappers,” out scavenging for metal, but Officer Steven Maslowski wasn’t buying their story and the only metal they ended up with were police handcuffs.

The gutters had been torn off the rear section of Central Park United Methodist Church, a sprawling stone structure that is regarded as an architectural gem.

Central Park is just one of 40 properties throughout the city that have been looted of copper and other metals in the first two months of this year, according to police. The value of the thefts, according to police estimates, is approximately $50,000. But thousands of dollars in damage also result from breaking into the properties.

Central Park wasn’t the only church to recently fall victim.

Several weeks earlier, thieves stole copper downspouts from the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation at Delaware Avenue and West Utica Street. That theft was estimated at $8,500 and the crooks got away.

Stealing copper and other metals is nothing new, police say, citing the worldwide demand for metal. But stripping churches demonstrates just how far thieves will go.

With high-quality copper selling at more than $3 a pound, police add, there is plenty of temptation. Even cast iron sewer grates are fair game for crooks.

“Stripping properties of metal is not just a local policing problem, but goes on across the country. The fact that even church properties could be subjected to such desecration illustrates how widespread the problem is,” Buffalo Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards said.

Most thieves, he said, prefer “to prey on vacant properties” because they present less of a chance of getting caught.

Lack of employment in a struggling economy is one motivation for the thefts, though police say those responsible are often drug addicts looking for a way to support their addictions.

Going after scrap yards that purchase stolen metal is a priority, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said.

“Obviously it is a problem and we will continue to crack down on the dealers who buy the stolen metal and the thieves who steal it,” Derenda said.

State law requires scrap yards to request identification from individuals selling metal to them. The problem is that it is difficult to identify what material might be stolen.

Metal thefts in the last two months have included:

• Pipes stolen at the former Deaconess Hospital on the 1000 block of Humboldt Parkway, adjacent to the Kensington Expressway. Amuel Jackson, 34, was caught Feb. 4 several blocks away, wheeling a shopping cart loaded with copper piping. He was charged with theft, criminal mischief, trespass and possession of burglary tools.

• Two men were seen cutting pipes out of a Best Street kitchen on Jan. 20. The theft was discovered by a woman in an apartment on the floor below. She looked up and noticed water dripping from her ceiling and went upstairs to investigate. The men fled when they saw her, police said.

• Copper wire spools valued at $8,000 stolen from an electrical contractor’s storage building on the 100 block of Warwick Avenue Jan. 29, after thieves disabled a burglar alarm. The copper was later recovered from a Cheektowaga residence and two men were arrested.

• Metal that took the form of 30 cast iron radiators, four cast iron bathtubs and approximately 400 feet of copper piping removed from a building on the 800 block of North Fillmore Avenue sometime between Jan. 30 and Feb. 21. The value was placed at $9,000.

At Central Park United Methodist Church, a price tag on the damage has not been set, but replacement is expected to be costly, even with the damaged gutters recovered, officials said.

“Our trustees are assessing the damage to the church property and certainly, where we can, we prefer to replace with what is architecturally sound, but it does depend on the cost,” said the Rev. Mary A. Kelly, pastor of the church at 216 Beard Ave.

The theft, she said, is reminder of how much work there is to be done in assisting people driven to commit desperate acts.

“It’s sad whenever anybody is the victim of a crime. We serve people from all walks of life and we are not naive to the existence of acts of desperation. At the same time, we recognize that the bigger picture is to attempt to address human suffering,” Kelly said.

After stopping the alleged thieves on Parker Avenue for driving erratically, Maslowski said he knew something was up when the men said they were out collecting scrap.

“They said they found the metal lying on the ground by the church,” Maslowski said.

But when the officer, assisted by a second officer, Jamie Miller, further investigated, they were able to determine the gutters had been ripped down from the back of the church.

Arthur Wagner, 46, and James Allard, 36, both of North Buffalo, were charged with third-degree criminal mischief, trespassing, petit larceny, criminal possession of stolen property and criminal possession of a controlled substance.

The controlled substance was suspected crack cocaine in a metal pipe, authorities said.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com