October 12, 2012

One in jail, two sought in metal theft at former Save Mart downtown

A Fresno man is in custody and two others are being sought in connection with the theft of thousands of dollars worth of copper pipes and wiring from the former Save Mart building in downtown Merced, police reported Friday.

Suther Lee Allen, 40, was booked at the Merced County Jail on investigation of burglary and conspiracy, according to Merced police Sgt. Jay Struble.

The estimated damage to the structure is between $300,000 to $400,000, and at least $100,000 worth of copper piping was removed, Struble said. At least four condensers from air conditioning units were reported taken.

According to police, they received a call from Mando Enterprise, the owners of the downtown building, at 1 p.m. Friday. The owner and his son reported they arrived to work on the plumbing so they could rent the space out.

But they couldn't open the front doors and told police the doors were shut from the inside. The owners managed to break the metal straps holding the doors shut, police said.

The owners found two people walking around inside the building and noticed the copper piping had been removed. Then they retreated outside to call 911.

When officers arrived, they said the back door near the loading dock slid open and a grey minivan with two men inside sped off. Police said Allen was left behind after rolling up the door.

Allen ran toward the fleeing van, police said, but couldn't catch up. According to police, he fled on foot but they apprehended him in the 1300 block of West 18th Street.

Officers searched inside the building, where they found power tools and other equipment. It's unclear how long the three men were inside the building, but based on the among of damage, police estimate they were there for many days. The owner said the last time anyone visited the building was Monday morning.

Struble said the owner handled the situation well by leaving the building as soon as they saw the men inside.

"Don't create the confrontation," he said. "Call us and let us deal with the confrontation."

Police said Allen was not cooperating or giving them information about the other men. He is being held at the Merced County Jail in lieu of $15,000.

The empty building at 1136 W. Main St. has been vacant since April. The supermarket chain shut it down in an effort to consolidate operations in Merced.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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