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Victim’s family awaits copper thief’s arrest

Published Friday | October 12, 2007

BY ELIZABETH AHLIN
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER

Perhaps the thief thought it was a harmless crime — stealing about $20 worth of copper pipe. Maybe he didn’t care who got hurt.

For now, the family of Earl Thelander of Onawa, Iowa, can only guess what was going through the mind of the person who damaged a propane line at Thelander’s house.

What followed was the stuff of nightmares: a gas-filled house, an explosion and painful burns that caused the 80-year-old Onawa man’s death.

More than six weeks later, investigators are nowhere near making an arrest.

The case is still under investigation, said Monona County Sheriff Jeffrey Pratt. But the thief did not leave tire tracks, footprints or fingerprints.

Without witnesses or physical evidence, authorities don’t have much to go on. They’re asking people to come forward with information.

“Hopefully, somebody will remember what was going on,” Pratt said.

For Thelander’s family, waiting for answers is agony.

“He was a good man. He followed the rules. He taught us to follow the rules,” Doug Thelander said of his father.

Thefts of copper have increased in recent years as the price of scrap copper has risen from less than $1 per pound five years ago to almost $3 per pound today.

Thieves have filched copper from electrical wire and ravaged homes under construction for copper tubing.

Iowa does not require salvage yard operators to keep records of their customers. But Omaha and Council Bluffs require salvage yard operators to record the identity and fingerprints of people who sell scrap copper.

Investigators have tracked down dozens of people who have sold copper tubing in the Onawa area through checks issued by the salvage yards. So far, the interviews haven’t led to the person who burglarized the Thelander house.

Earl Thelander had been working on the empty house, which he was preparing to sell. He left at 4 p.m. Aug. 27. When he returned at 8 a.m. the next morning, he saw that the house had been burglarized.

Onawa police officers and sheriff’s deputies found a damaged propane pipe while investigating the house. They opened up the home to air it out and left.

When Thelander returned about two hours later, he didn’t smell any gas, he later told his son. Thelander either plugged in a fan or flipped a light switch, triggering the explosion.

Thelander, who suffered second- and third-degree burns, spent four days in critical condition at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and died Sept. 1.

The hardest part, Doug Thelander said, is thinking about those four days when his father was in so much pain.

“The ordeal that he went through before he finally passed away was just horrible,” Thelander said. “There’s just no reason.”

Still, he is certain the thief who damaged the propane pipe will be caught.

“Somebody’s going to talk,” Thelander said. “Decent people just have to step up and take their community back. Somebody knows who did this.”

Anyone with information on the case is asked to call the Monona County Sheriff’s Office at 800-859-1414.

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