Someone lifted a 500-pound church bell from the yard of the Frankfort Presbyterian Church in Hookstown, Beaver County.
By Max Radwin / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Ask rather where it is.
The Rev. Allison Bauer was asking herself that question Saturday. She takes her dog for a walk every day, down the street and past Frankfort Presbyterian Church in Hookstown, where she has been a minister since 2006. But on Saturday, something was missing as she approached the church, a big something: its 500-pound brass bell, which usually sits beneath the front-yard sign.
Pennsylvania State Police are looking for a suspect. Members of the Beaver County church last saw the bell about noon Friday. They believe it was stolen to be sold for scrap, a common crime in Western Pennsylvania.
This wasn't the first time the bell had gone missing. Rev. Bauer said it disappeared almost to the day two years ago, in May 2012.
After calling scrap businesses in the area, church members discovered three men had taken it to Six Recycling in East Liverpool, Ohio. Workers there stalled the men until police arrived and arrested them, Rev. Bauer said.
To prevent it from being stolen again, the church welded the bell to a metal stand sunk into a concrete pad deep in the ground, Rev. Bauer said.
That wasn't enough. Over the weekend, the welding was cut away and the bell was popped from its stand. Rev. Bauer said the church's shed also was broken into, and a gas can was taken.
"It's a shame that it's been stolen again, but I'm not surprised it was," she said, considering the financial straits of many people in the region and the value of the bell as scrap.
Yet the bell won't yield the kind of sum it would have between 2004 and 2011, when copper tripled in price. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc.
According to Bloomberg News, copper futures on the Comex have declined 14 percent in 2014 -- to $2.877 per pound as of March. Keystone Iron & Metal Co. said it pays $1.50 a pound for brass, which would make the bell worth $750.
As it did in 2012, the church made calls to scrap yards over the weekend, telling them to be on the lookout for the bell. State police also registered the theft on www.ScrapTheftAlert.com, a database created by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in 2008 to help coordinate efforts between law enforcement and scrap yards.
A Pennsylvania law passed in 2008 requires people selling materials to provide scrap and recycling yards with a license plate number, license information and a signature for all sales above $100. State police said thieves usually are caught when they take stolen material registered on the database to scrap yards.
The age of the bell is unknown, but Rev. Bauer believes it dates to the mid- or late-1800s with the founding of Frankfort Springs Presbyterian Church, which merged with Frankfort Presbyterian in 1966.
Theft of church or other historically important objects does not seem to be a widespread problem, according to Preserve Pennsylvania field representative Erin Hammerstedt. Preserve Pennsylvania protects historical and architectural resources.
Instead, Ms. Hammerstedt said, metal theft is much more common in buildings that are vacant or underutilized and are easier to break into to steal wire and piping.
The Rev. Liddy Barlow, director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pa., said churches have been targeted for their copper pipes, but important objects such as bells or memorials are rarely pilfered.
"There is a perception, perhaps rightly or wrongly, that there are valuable items in churches," she said. "But for someone looking to commit crimes, a church could be a target."
Max Radwin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1280.
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