Antelope Valley builders talk with disgust about a construction site crime wave that has accompanied a recent housing boom--and with amazement at the sheer industriousness of thieves who pillage unfinished houses like locusts.
"They take cabinets, plumbing fixtures," said Andrew Eliopulos, vice president of J.P. Eliopulos Enterprises Inc. in Lancaster. "They take lumber, doors, windows, sinks, toilets, tools. When we pour our foundations, we've actually had guys who came out to chisel the concrete and hacksaw out the copper fixtures."
The loot taken from construction sites also includes bulldozers, trees, expensive laser leveling devices and dirt for landscaping. During a burglary spree early this year, two Palmdale men with cocaine habits and a pickup truck stole more than $5,000 worth of dishwashers and stoves from at least eight developments before being caught, according to court documents. Like many other thieves, they struck in broad daylight at busy work sites.
"In most cases the construction activity was so intense that people would drive in and pick up stuff and no one would question them," said Rick Norris, executive director of the Antelope Valley Building Industry Assn. He said there are currently 109 tracts under construction in the area.
The surge in brazen thefts peaked last year when the value of building permits hit an Antelope Valley record of $1.4 billion. Housing starts in the area have dropped 30% this year and sales are off as well.
Thefts are also down, according to law enforcement officials and builders, but theft, vandalism and arson remain worrisome in the high-desert building industry. A new concern is that with the slump in the market, houses may remain empty and unsold for longer periods of time.
"Construction is slowing down; they are definitely sitting longer," said Lancaster Building and Safety Director Fred Norton.
Theft is a perennial problem at construction sites everywhere, Norton and others said. But it has been particularly noticeable in the Antelope Valley because of the speed and volume of building activity there and the vastness of the area, which makes it hard to police.
Professional thieves aren't the only culprits. One prominent builder, who asked not to be identified, estimated that more than half of all construction theft in the Antelope Valley can be attributed to construction workers. Estimates by sheriff's officials were less specific, but they agreed that many thefts are inside jobs carried out by an often transient work force.
Temptation draws opportunistic outsiders as well, such as the driver of a car filled with freshly stolen roofing materials and lumber who Eliopulos spotted one night last year in one of his Lancaster housing tracts.
Eliopulos gave chase and called the Sheriff's Department on his mobile phone. Half a dozen patrol cars took part in a high-speed freeway pursuit that ended when deputies forced the car to a stop and dragged out the driver at gunpoint.
The accused thief turned out to be a man who had recently bought a house in Palmdale and he told police he stole the materials to build an addition. When asked why he didn't go to a more conventional source such as Costco or the Home Club, stores whose credit cards were in his wallet, Eliopulos said the suspect replied: "They didn't have what I wanted."
Though they say it is hard to prove, builders and city officials suspect the same cavalier attitude exists among many residents of incomplete housing tracts. Thefts of materials from residences under construction in a development are accompanied by sudden flurries of home improvement with the same kind of materials at the occupied houses, they said.
"What are you supposed to do?" Eliopulos said. "You can't put your name on every piece of lumber on the site."
Building industry representatives said the thefts translate into higher insurance rates and house prices. Eliopulos estimated that crime costs the consumer about $500 extra per dwelling.
"It drives up the costs," Norris said. "It does get passed on."
Sheriff's deputies make a special effort to patrol construction sites, said Capt. Gary Vance of the Antelope Valley sheriff's station. Many large development companies also employ private security guards.
"We have full-time security from dusk to dawn," said Stewart Green, president of the local Building Industry Assn. and of Pacifica Corp., which spent more than $50 million on Antelope Valley projects last year. "Our firm has been quite lucky. I am not aware of major thefts of appliances or lumber."
But Green and others conceded that there is a limit to what can be done, given the size and remoteness of many sites and the fact that some thieves operate during the workday. For example, the Mirabella Villas condominium development in Lancaster employs security guards, yet on June 16 it was the site of the largest arson in Antelope Valley history, a $6-million blaze that damaged or destroyed 80 condominiums on a Saturday afternoon.