Empty homes drawing thieves
Who would think an unfinished home in an Antioch subdivision left abandoned by a defunct builder would be a gold mine?
Three enterprising crooks found the house in the Clublands subdivision was worth about $1,000 in stolen copper and other materials -- at least until they were nabbed by police.
While the crime could be considered minor, it underscores one more problem Neumann homeowners have to deal with in the wake of the Warrenville-based company's bankruptcy.
The thousands of unfinished and unoccupied homes in subdivisions scattered across the Northwest suburbs are an invitation to thieves who net hundreds of dollars at scrap-metal yards.
Karen Blythe, executive director of the Construction Industry Crime Prevention Program based in California, said construction-site crooks will steal just about anything, and estimates the loss from tools, material and equipment at about $26 million a year nationwide.
"This is a terrible, terrible situation and I see all sorts of red flags going up," Blythe said.
When Neumann Homes filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy Oct. 31, about 50 homes in the Neuhaven and Clublands subdivisions in Antioch were in various stages of completion.
Antioch Police Cmdr. James Ruth said extra patrols were added to the Neumann subdivisions even before the bankruptcy.
"There have been a lot of police departments dealing with similar types of theft," Ruth said. "Copper is the most desirable because you can get the most money, but we've seen theft of all kinds, including aluminum siding being taken off of houses."
According to the London Metal Exchange, one pound of copper is worth about $4, while aluminum is at $1.44 per pound.
Gene Kennepp, of 1914 White Lake Drive, moved to the Clublands subdivision six months ago and sees the recent thefts as something that could happen at any construction site.
"We had a security system at our old house and we put one in at this house way before any problems with the developers," Kennepp said.
"So far, I think Antioch and the police department have done a fantastic job. In fact, because of their patrolling, they saw footprints in the snow that led to the arrest of those three men."
Other towns dealing with the fallout of Neumann Homes' bankruptcy are North Aurora, Gilberts, Grayslake, Hanover Park, Lakemoor and Wonder Lake.
So far, though, thefts at construction sites in those municipalities haven't been a noticeable problem.
"It's something we keep an eye on and we're not surprised when there is an increase in theft reports when people are building homes, but we haven't experienced an increase with the Neumann situation," said Hanover Park Deputy Police Chief Mark Gatz.
Gatz said items typically stolen from building sites include construction materials, such as lumber, and appliances.
Blythe said she has seen crooks go as far as yanking sinks out of walls and prying off marble countertops.
"It's an incredibly common crime because it's easy -- the likelihood of being caught is small and if you are caught, it's difficult to prove," she said. "It's also a crime that costs billions, and those billions are simply pushed onto the customers."
Gilberts Police Chief Mike Joswick said his town is lucky that Neumann had only two model homes up in his village before filing for bankruptcy.
"We have had thefts at other construction sites, but it seems to have dropped off with the winter," Joswick said. "Unfortunately, with the weather warming up, we'll probably start seeing an increase. I've been doing this for 25 years and the trend seems to be when the economy is bad, thefts go up."
Grayslake Police Sgt. Scott Heimos said it has been about a month since the last construction-related theft.
"We patrol just the same as anything else," Heimos said. "It is so hard to tell at construction sites. Sometimes we think there is something going on and it is just workers getting there early."
Because it is hard to tell, Blythe recommends homeowners form neighborhood associations to actively watch over unoccupied homes.
"The thieves often have a network and the message becomes clear it is not an easy place to steal from," Blythe said. "High-end subdivisions have high-end appliances, and high-end lighting -- all things that are appealing to criminals."