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      Copper thieves vandalize 9 local churches

      Six air conditioning units were damaged at St. Johns Baptist Church in Hopkins.

      RICHLAND COUNTY (WACH / AP) - Investigators with the Richland County Sheriff's Department say copper thieves have vandalized nine local churches.

      Sheriff Leon Lott says the department hopes the community can assist in identifying the suspects involved in the incidents, which have totaled an estimated $101,750 in thefts and damages at houses of worship.

      Lott says the suspects are stealing copper from air conditioning units.

      Authorities are working to determine if the thefts are related.

      Thomas Gunter has been going to St. Johns Baptist Church in Hopkins for 60 years. He says the money the church will have to put toward replacing six air conditioning units will take away from other programs at the church.

      According to Gunter, church officials have decided to increase security on the property.

      "We're going to secure these units a lot better than they have been secured in the past. And I'm not going to give out any indication how yet, but the next time they come through and decide they want to get the St. Johns Baptist Church, we're going to have a surprise for them," said Gunter.

      Investigator Scott Blair with the Richland County Sheriff's Department says the department is working with scrap yards to better identify stolen items.

      "If this air conditioning is taken again, the scrap yard will be able to identify it. There are going to be numbers that the bad guys won't know about," said Blair.

      Copper thefts dropped after a new law two years ago that requires those selling copper to get a permit from their local sheriff. Transporting stolen copper can result in a 10-year prison sentence.

      Deputies say there continue to be flare-ups of copper thefts.

      The following churches have reported incidents:

      March 15

      St. Johns Baptist Church ?? 230 JW Neal Circle ?? Hopkins - $21,000.00 in damages

      March 13

      Mill Creek United Methodist Church ?? Columbia - $24,000.00 in damages

      8111 Garners Ferry Road ?? New Life Christian Center ?? Columbia - $4,000.00

      February 19

      7156 Cabin Creek Road ?? Ladson??s Chapel Baptist Church ?? Hopkins - $8,000.00 in damages

      February 4

      10220 Garners Ferry Road ?? Lebanon United Methodist Church ?? Eastover - $30,000.00 in damages

      January 31

      112 Southwind Road ?? Highway Christian Church ?? Eastover - $1,200.00 in damages

      January 28

      128 Mount Zion Church Road ?? Mount Zion Baptist Church ?? Eastover - $6,050.00 in damages

      January 27

      1136 Antioch Amez Church Road ?? Antioch AME Zion Church ?? Eastover - $5,500.00 in damages

      January 13

      11500 Garners Ferry Road ?? Good Hope Baptist Church ?? Eastover, SC - $2,000.00 in damages

      Anyone with additional information should contact CrimeStoppers at 1-888-Crime-SC.

      (The Associated Press contributed to this report.)