Posted: May 8, 2008 10:29 PM
Onawa, IA – On the quiet outskirts of town near Onawa, Iowa is the scene of an unsolved and deadly copper crime.
Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt got the call last August from a well-respected landlord in town. “Elderly gentleman who would give you the shirt off his back to help anybody. It’s something we want to get solved.”
The landlord, Earl Thelander, had celebrated his 80th birthday just a few months earlier in May of 2007 with his large family, 6 kids, five step children and 23 grandchildren.
One son, Brad Thelander recalls that day, “I had called dad about 10:30 that morning. He was just disgusted, he said they took all the cooper out and couldn’t believe it.”
When Mr. Thelander noticed the break-in and smelled the gas, he turned it off and called 911. Earl opened some windows and went home to wait for the air to clear. The Sheriff left the scene too. “We went back into town to fill out reports and two and a half hours later, the explosion happened.”
Another son, Doug Thelander says, “A ball of fire blew him across the basement. He walked up the stairs out of the basement and he tried to make a call and he couldn’t. He drove home to his wife three miles, badly, badly burnt.”
The sheriff says when the thief or thieves cut the copper to the propane gas lines, they left behind a ticking time bomb. Sheriff Pratt: “Where the furnace area is right there is where he was attempting to plug in a fan — that’s what caused the explosion.”
Before the 2nd and 3rd degree burns started to do their damage, Earl was sitting up and talking at the Onawa hospital. His daughter Vicki was the first one at the hospital. She says, “First thing he says, ‘Don’t be calling everybody. I’m fine.'”
Doug Thelander: “One thing he did say, ‘I didn’t smell anything Doug.’ This is a guy who worked around propane all his life. He had heating and air conditioning businesses and before that worked for a propane outfit.”
Doctors put Mr. Thelander in a medically induced coma for the helicopter flight to Omaha. He never woke up. Sheriff Pratt: “We checked with the fire department and it (propane gas) was off, just the lingering vapors in the house.”
The night of Monday August 27, 2007, Earl Thelander had just finished up work on the Onawa home hoping to rent. The sheriff believes copper thieves knew the home would be empty that night.
Daughter Vicki: “I am sure the persons involved didn’t do this and didn’t expect this to happen. They probably just thought they would go in and get easy money and walk out.”
Earl Thelander’s death may be the first in the country where thieves cashing in on copper killed a man.
It’s a first in quiet Monona County, where even stealing copper rarely happens.
Sheriff Pratt: “This is a very big cold case for us. We never had a murder in the county, back in 69 or 70 and that was solved and we arrested the husband.”
Someone has to know something. That’s what the sheriff and the Thelanders think… And they even believe that someone is close to the family.
Asking Brad: “Why would they stand up now and do the right thing? Brad says, so they could live with themselves, they gotta live with this. They hurt a lot of people and it’s important they don’t continue the path they are on or they will hurt more people.”
The thieves may have gotten away with the goods, but they robbed the Thelander family of much more than a bundle of copper. Doug says, “We shouldn’t have lost dad that way. Some two bit thief for less than 20 dollars worth of copper, this is the result. Dad is burned and dies. How do you live with that?”
The family hopes if someone’s conscience doesn’t get to them, maybe money will help.
They’re offering a $5,000 reward for anyone who can help solve the copper theft killing of their father.
Reported by Michelle Bandur