Vigilant Pastor Helps Catch Alleged Copper Thief

Arrested man has visited the Dallas County Jail 19 times since 2002

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Pastor Todd Atkins had video of a vehicle and a thief stealing copper from his Salem Institutional Baptist Church air conditioning in South Dallas on April 6.

So, when he saw the same vehicle beside a home under construction in the neighborhood Tuesday, he summoned police. This time, he said officers caught the alleged copper thief in the act.

“Man, we had about five police officers there in a matter of moments,” Atkins said.

Police spokesman Brian Martinez said it was a good example of how a partnership with the community is crucial for helping officers make arrests.

“They were able to put him in custody and they linked him to the other incident as well so that was a great arrest,” Martinez said.

The April 6 crime at the church was the second time this year copper was stolen there, but the first time that better lighting and focused surveillance cameras recorded usable images of a crime.

“And because I’ve seen that video so many times, I recognized the car he was in,” the Pastor said.

The arrested man was 55-year-old Tracy Elon Steele. Records show he has 19 Dallas County arrests dating back to 2002. They are non-violent property crimes like burglary and theft. Cases include stealing food in Garland. A trespassing charge at another Dallas church was awaiting trial when Tuesday’s arrest occurred.

Pastor Atkins said the mission of churches is helping people with needs like food and shelter.

“I don’t care about your story, your background, we’re here to help. But, it makes it so much more difficult when someone comes and steals air conditioning. That takes money from feeding,” Atkins said.

Martinez said police are challenged with repeat offenders.

“We have no control over how much time they spend in jail for stuff like that, but it is frustrating for us because we don’t want these types of individuals on the streets,” he said.

The repeat copper thefts racked up thousands of dollars in losses at Salem Institutional Baptist Church which is not far from several South Dallas scrap yards that buy metal.

“And that's the problem when I can steal on one street, walk two streets over and sell it and then the evidence is gone,” Atkins said.

Martinez said 18 scrap yards in Dallas are required to record purchases and report them to the police metal theft unit so detectives can compare items to reports of stolen material.

“That detective will determine if that was part of a crime or not,” Martinez said. “That’s why it’s very essential if you are a victim of a crime to report it.”

Dallas Police records show reports of stolen property cases are up 20% so far this year.

Police offer a tip to help avoid theft of copper and other metals in the first place.

Martinez said painting or coloring will strongly discourage thieves from taking it.

“Some of these scrap yards don’t like the fact that a lot of this is painted, a lot of the copper is painted. They prefer the brass color. Painting it devalues it,” he said.

Pastor Atkins said he received many calls from church neighbors about the initial April 8 NBC 5 report of copper theft at the church and residents were on high alert to spot the perpetrator.

But it was Atkins who spotted the person first.

“I always preach if you see something, say something. But you can not lead from behind. So, when I saw something, I had to say something. And I hope this inspires the rest of our community to do the same,” Atkins said. “This can not be tolerated.”

Efforts to reach lawyers who represented Tracy Steele in the past were not successful Wednesday. 

Steele was still in jail as of Wednesday evening with bond listed at $15,000.

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