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Cops: Habitual copper thieves captured

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Police have arrested two habitual copper thieves who showed little restraint while causing more than $2 million in damages to Gwinnett businesses, officials said Wednesday.

The suspects -- Timothy Henley, 48, of Buford, and Douglas Gittens, 40, of Lawrenceville -- could have played a role in 93 reported thefts involving air conditioning units this year, police said. The thefts, which included property at 10 Buford churches, were reported between March 1 and April 30, investigators found.

Henley, Gittens and others stole air conditioning coils and copper from exterior units, then sold the materials to recycling centers around Gwinnett County, said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Edwin Ritter.

An investigation found that the materials matched parts taken from commercial rooftops. Each of the units contained large quantities of a refrigerant called chlorodiflouromethane -- also known as R-22 -- which was banned after it was linked to Ozone depletion.

Ritter said the refrigerant is still used in older systems commissioned before the ban.

Police have secured warrants that charge the men with burglarizing and dumping hazardous materials at four commercial locations, where damage estimates exceed $2 million, police said.

Those locations include a former Toys"R"Us (1705 Mall of Georgia Blvd.) in Buford; the Five Forks Village (850 Dogwood Ave.), Shannon Oak (2369 U.S. Highway 29) and River Exchange (2100 Riverside Parkway) shopping centers in Lawrenceville.

Henley and Gittens are charged with burglary and three counts of theft by taking. Henley faces additional charges of dumping a hazardous substance, Ritter said.

Both men are being held without bond at the Gwinnett County Jail.

Police throughout Georgia have dealt with a scourge of copper theft in recent years as payouts at scrap metal yards spiked as much as 300 percent.

Georgia legislators enacted a law in 2007 which makes stealing and selling anything from beer kegs to copper tubing a felony if the metal is worth more than $500.

A Gwinnett police special unit meant to thwart copper theft was disbanded in 2006 after several key arrests were made.

Ritter said the investigation continues and more information will soon be released.