Man Killed in Blast died for ‘piece of copper piping’

Theft of gas line led to blast that burned Earl Thelander

Register Staff Writer

September 5, 2007

An 80-year-old Onawa man has apparently become the first Iowa fatality related to the growing crime of urban mining.

Rising scrap metal prices have prompted a widespread trend of theft of metal construction materials from homes, businesses and construction sites.

“Yesterday, with his 11 kids and my mother surrounding him, my second father, Earl Thelander … died as the result of a cowardly thief who burglarized my grandparent’s former country home, for a $10 piece of copper piping,” Thelander’s stepdaughter, Jody Ewing, wrote on her Web site over the weekend.

“The burglar didn’t bother to shut off the gas before cutting the copper gas line, and let the home fill with gas for the inevitable explosion,” Ewing wrote.

Thelander died Saturday at an Omaha medical center burn unit after being burned in a gas explosion at the home on Aug. 28.

“‘Dad Earl’ – as my four siblings and I always called him – wanted to live,” Ewing wrote. “And, he had everything to live for. He was healthy, happy, and couldn’t wait until his tomatoes finished ripening on the vines. He’d planned to give each of us some, and looked forward to the BLT sandwiches my mom always made for him.

“Yes, he wanted to live. Even after the explosion, he somehow managed to crawl through the fire, climb into his pickup, and drive the two miles back home in town, where my mother then immediately took him to the hospital. With both his knees burned clear through to the bone, he’d managed to make it back to her,” Ewing wrote.

“Yesterday (Saturday), we each took turns holding the tips of his fingers … one of the few parts on his body without the full-thickness, third-degree burns, and we told him again and again how much we loved him, how much he’d taught us about life and respect and hard work and looking out for one another and reaching out to help a neighbor in need.”

Ewing, who describes herself on her Web site as a freelance journalist and cold case investigative journalist, said her stepfather’s death should prompt officials to consider filing serious charges.

The county attorney and the sheriff are not saying what charges they are considering.

“It’s a criminal investigation at this point. Stealing was a criminal act,” said Monona County Attorney Michael Jensen.

Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt also declined to speculate on what charges might be filed and said no one has been arrested.

Thelander’s death may be the first in the state relating to copper theft.

Brad Novak, a Cedar Rapids detective and member of the executive board of the Iowa State Police Association, said he has heard of no other deaths connected to the theft of copper. “I can’t recall anything like that,” he said. “We are seeing an increase in copper thefts. It’s a statewide trend.”

Thelander’s son, Brad Thelander, talked with his father on the day that it happened.

“I saw him at the hospital in Onawa,” he said. “He joked with us, and we joked with him. He was conscious and talking and he joked about screwing up by turning on the fan. But he’d let the house air out for 2hours later while Thelander was alone in the house.

Family members were told almost from the beginning that Thelander’s chance of survival was just 20 percent or 25 percent. He had third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body.

“Knowing how tough he was we still thought he’d beat the odds,” Brad Thelander said. But the end came about 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

“What we don’t understand is why the thief didn’t turn off the gas,” he said. “They had to know the house was filling up with gas. Or at least they could have made an anonymous call to someone saying the gas was on in the house.”

Reporter Tom Alex can be reached at (515) 284-8088 or
COMMENTS from the Des Moines Register article:

Very dangerous scumbags!
Posted by: leopard_colony on Thu Sep 06, 2007 11:17 am
The scumbag(s) who did this are very dangerous. They stole copper piping without bothering to shut off the valve at the tank. That shows depraved indifference to the safety of others and themselves. Now imagine interrupting these jerks in the act. It is a safe bet that they would not hesitate to attack you. You can’t call the police just because you hear something, you have to investigate first. At that point you don’t have a chance to call the police before the criminals attack you. If you are unarmed you would be dead or seriously injured. So you need a firearm, not to shoot someone but to keep criminals away. Shooting someone is the last thing you want to do. Now imagine a politician is elected who bans almost all firearms, leaving you helpless. To make it worse, the criminals know you are helpless! It’s open season on people, especially women Remember this when you vote!

Reader Comment
Posted by: westdesmoinesguy on Wed Sep 05, 2007 10:34 pm
Require documented Picture ID and any other requirements that are currently required of pawn shops….Scrap dealers are in the same business..

Copper thieves
Posted by: fumblefing on Wed Sep 05, 2007 9:13 am
The scumbags that did this are likely oblivious to any publicity on it, they are focused on financing their next “fix”. They likely don’t have the inclination to listen to or read the news.

The market sets prices for scrap metal and our industries depend in part on the scrap for material. Other than licensing sellers and requiring record keeping of sales beyond what the scrap dealers are already made to do, there isn’t much that could be done here.

It would be good to see these folks caught but the current justice system would soon have them back on the streets. Best scenario: they take themselves out without leaving their heirs an excuse to sue the victims.

Reader Comment
Posted by: Rocco_L on Wed Sep 05, 2007 8:15 am
I hope they charge the scum bags with murder 1 now.

Somewhere right now there’s a one or 2 thieving dirtbags sweating bullets and looking over their shoulders wondering when the cops are coming to get them.

Reader Comment
Posted by: former Iowan on Wed Sep 05, 2007 7:24 am
How absolutely senseless and sad this innocent elder gentleman had to loose his life because of some worthless (probably) dopehead had to have a quick fix and caused this explosion. I hope they catch the jerk and hang him by his feet. I have read many stories about people stealing copper tubing and destroying houses – but I never read about anyone being caught. Maybe someone should look at closing down the places that buy this – or at least cutting the prices to where it isn’t worth the crooks trouble to steal it.

Posted by: Skylark on Wed Sep 05, 2007 7:22 am
Very sad for this individuals family and friends. Monona County hopefully can catch one of the local meth heads selling copper at the scrap yards.

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