Five years ago today, my family received news no family ever expects to hear. We were fortunate, however, in that we received a gift few families get to experience when crime comes knocking on one’s door; we each got the opportunity to see and speak to our loved one — and him to us — one last time in conversation not focused on any final goodbye, but words of hope, love, and the promise of many more tomorrows.
Those tomorrows lasted just four more days before my stepfather, Earl Thelander, succumbed to burns sustained in a home explosion brought about by copper thieves. He died September 1, 2007, four months shy of his and my mother’s 25th wedding anniversary.
Mom and Earl had been out the night before working on the rural home they were preparing for a renter — the same country home where my maternal grandparents used to live — and the late-night or early-morning burglars who cut and stole propane gas lines and let the home fill with gas have yet to be apprehended or charged in the crime. My stepdad’s case remains unsolved.
Earl and Mom early on, fixing up a rental property.
Two months after his death, my mom, Hope Thelander, wrote about what she missed most about her husband and best friend; with permission, I’d posted her story to my blog. Read the blog post here.
Today I’d like to post the things I miss most about a good man I felt privileged to call “Dad Earl.”
I miss the way he always looked at my mom.
I miss how he’d always throw back his head in hearty laughter.
I miss the way he so carefully pushed up his glasses, his fingers wrapped around the outer edges, when deep in thought.
I miss watching him carefully tend to his tomato plants and point out those he had marked for BLTs.
I miss watching his face when speaking on the phone to one of his kids.
Earl getting ready to plant tomatoes.
I miss witnessing his meticulous attention to detail whenever he went about fixing something … anything … he made sure things got done right the first time.
I miss hearing the way he’d begin a sentence with “If a guy were to . . .” because he never stopped considering new ways to approach a task at hand.
I miss seeing him sitting in his favorite chair at the kitchen table, sipping coffee from his favorite blue mug.
I miss his silent disapproval and how he’d slowly look down into his lap whenever he heard someone make a judgmental comment about another.
I miss him at family birthday parties, at family barbecues.
I miss seeing him in his favorite pink oxford shirt that always made him look so handsome.
I miss seeing him behind the wheel in his maroon and silver Dodge pick-up truck.
I miss him.
Earl enjoys a day at my grandparents’ farm outside Onawa, Iowa.
This used to be my grandparents’ rural country home. Five generations once laughed and loved and celebrated countless family milestones here. After Grandpa died and Grandma moved in with my folks, my mom and stepdad purchased the house in order to keep it in the family, and were in the process of fixing it up for a renter when thieves broke in late on Aug. 28, 2007, stole copper piping, and let the home fill with gas for the inevitable explosion.
My stepfather, “Dad” Earl Thelander, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 80% of his body in the explosion. Four days later, he lost his life over less than $20 worth of stolen copper.
In early 2008 I put this slideshow video together and sent it — along with a detailed letter — to the Iowa Legislature’s Judiciary Subcommittee in support of House Study Bill 660, “An Act relating to scrap metal transactions, prohibiting certain sales, imposing criminal penalties, and providing an effective date.”
The bill would have made it more difficult for thieves to sell scrap metal in Iowa without proper identification. (Some states, including Florida, were moving legislation forward to make this crime a first degree felony.) Iowa’s bill, however, failed to make the March 7 first funnel date and died. An irony, indeed, considering we were the only state to have lost an innocent victim to copper theft.
Iowa needs an “Earl’s Law.” If other states can take this crime as seriously as they do, so can Iowa. Earl deserves nothing less.
Lobbyists for or against Iowa’s failed HSB 660 (in addition to those still undecided before the bill died) are listed below. I’m keeping the list for reference.
Thank you for taking the time to view the video.
Lobbyist Declarations for HSB 660
82nd General Assembly
John Gilliland FEBRUARY 27, 2008
Against — IA. Assn. of Business and Industry (ABI)
Nicole Molt FEBRUARY 27, 2008
Against — IA. Assn. of Business and Industry (ABI)
Robert Ellis FEBRUARY 26, 2008
Against — Alter Trading Corporation
Curtis Beason FEBRUARY 25, 2008
Against — Alter Trading Corporation
Douglas Kingsbury FEBRUARY 25, 2008
For — International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Iowa State Conference
Terry Harrmann FEBRUARY 25, 2008
Undecided — Alliant Energy Corporation
James Obradovich FEBRUARY 19, 2008
Undecided — IA. Environmental Council
Undecided — IA. Recycling Assn.
Undecided — IA. Society of Solid Waste Operations (ISOSWO)
News Reports and other Videos Concerning Earl Thelander Copper Theft Death
Homicide Earl Thelander
Home Residence: 710 1st Street, Onawa, IA
Crime Location: 20877 Gum Ave., Onawa, IA, Monona County
Date of Crime: August 28, 2007
Date of Death: September 1, 2007
Earl Thelander of Onawa, IA, died from second- and third-degree burns sustained over 80% of his body in an August 28, 2007 explosion after copper thieves stripped propane gas lines from a country home he was renovating and let the home fill with propane gas.
With Earl’s death came the nation’s first — and only known to date — innocent fatality resulting from the growing copper theft epidemic.
The estimated value of the copper stolen and exchanged for a good man’s life: less than $20.
WHO-TV (Des Moines) Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck reports on Earl Thelander’s unsolved death. Air date: July 29, 2010
KTIV-TV Channel 4 reports on the Iowa Cold Cases website – June 9, 2008
A thief who stripped copper tubing from a propane tank is blamed for a gas buildup and house explosion that severely burned an 80-year-old Onawa man, authorities said Wednesday.
Earl Thelander suffered third-degree burns over nearly half his body in Tuesday’s blast. Investigators say the gas buildup was linked to the disappearance of the tubing, which has increasingly been the target of so-called “urban miners” who hope to cash in on the high price of certain scrap metals.
The thief who hit Thelander’s rural home “maybe got $15 worth of copper,” Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt said. “They cut the propane line going to the furnace of the house in an attempt to steal the copper.”
Pratt said Thelander discovered the theft Tuesday and tried to air out the house, which he uses for rental income. He went to the basement and plugged in a fan, which investigators say likely sparked the explosion.
“It blew out one wall and bowed another one,” Pratt said. “But Earl walked out of there.”
The thief got away with 25 to 40 feet of copper tubing. Scrap metal prices have climbed in recent years due to increased demand in countries such as India and China.
“This just totally bowled people over that someone would do something menacing like this,” Onawa’s mayor, Rebecca Tanner, said. “It’s one thing to steal copper water pipes. But to steal copper gas pipes is beyond comprehension. This caused a tremendous explosion. Everyone knows how dangerous gas can be. Everyone in town who knows about this is amazed, startled and outraged.”
Thelander tried to use his cell phone to call for help but it apparently was rendered inoperable in the blast.
“He drove himself back into town and to the hospital,” Pratt said. “He is really a remarkable guy.”
Thelander was later moved to an Omaha hospital with specialized burn unit.
Pratt said there have been few relatively copper thefts reported in Monona County.
“Counties to the south have had this problem,” he said. “Now we’ve got it — in a major way.”
Reader Comment Posted by: jsnmlk on Thu Aug 30, 2007 4:11 am
According to NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) propane can be ran through copper tubing. One thing is propane is heavier than air so it going to settle to the lowest point. His best bet would have been to set the fan outside and vent through a window out another window.
I hope when they catch this “entrepreneur(s)”(about as bad as calling it “urban mining”), they charge them with not only B&E but attempted murder, because taking the copper could be considered gross negligence. If the vicitm would pass way from his injuries (I hope he makes a full recovery) it should be considered murder 1 because it was premeidated.
Most scrap yards don’t care Posted by: Matt on Thu Aug 30, 2007 12:01 am
I was selling some scrap copper a few weeks ago. I saw a couple of rolls of brand new wire. It was the bare solid copper wire we use for grounding electrical services to ground rods and water mains. Nice and neat rolls of bare copper wire. The theives just took the spools apart and they were left with rolled up bare copper wire.
I pointed out to the yard that it was totally hot wire. I knew you couldn’t prove it. But they needed to point this out to the cops.
I called a tropper I know and he told me which cop to talk to. The yard remembered what town the scum was from. I passed all of this on.
The cop later told me that they had the cops in the scum’s home town watching him as well.
I haven’t heard anything – what I saw wouldn’t do any good in court anyway – but hopefully they’ll get some of the scum of of the street.
Reader Comment Posted by: hoopdwalawala on Wed Aug 29, 2007 7:09 pm
Fill the ‘miner’s’ home with propane then hand him a full crack pipe. That’ll resolve him in very short time.
Reader Comment Posted by: spiceycurry on Wed Aug 29, 2007 6:58 pm
Boy, that is acryin’ shame. But what a tough Old Cat. I hope he recovers.
Theft -not mining Posted by: cav-tanker on Wed Aug 29, 2007 5:14 pm
It would be nice if the Register would call it like it is. It is not Urban Mining- it is Breaking and entering along with larcency or theft. The term Urban Mining just tries to justify the theft or criminal trespass.
Hope they can throw the book at this jerk. Better yet – let him plug in the fan and then fry. You would never want to be burned again if you have been severely burnt before. It is a pain that doesn’t go away unless it gets to third degree.
Please start using the proper term instead of glorifying the crooks.
Reader Comment Posted by: JJCDAD on Wed Aug 29, 2007 4:20 pm
I think there needs to be something done to make it harder for the crack heads to redeem scrap metal. Maybe some kind of requirement that folks who want to get cash for metal have to put down a sizeable deposit with the scrap yard. That deposit could then be refunded once the customer has demonstrated a history of legitimate transactions.
FYI Posted by: fz1 on Wed Aug 29, 2007 3:22 pm
When you plug anything into an outlet there is a minute amount of spark…………..guessing he has figured that out now!
Reader Comment Posted by: thor on Wed Aug 29, 2007 3:14 pm
I think they mean in a major way because now thieves are moving from pipes that cause minor inconviences to now to taking items that could possibly destroy a house. I’m pretty sure you would be awfuly upset if someone did this to you and then got charged with just petty theft.
There was another article just a couple weeks ago about people stealing catylitic converters from cars and selling then for around $30-$40, and then leaving the victim to purchase a new one for a couple hundred.
Also, hopefully he has good insurance because you know even if they catch the crack head who did this they won’t be able to get any money from him.
Reader Comment Posted by: slycotton82 on Wed Aug 29, 2007 2:56 pm
3rd degree burns on half his body and he drove himself to the hospital? That is one tough 80 year old man!
Reader Comment Posted by: missm on Wed Aug 29, 2007 2:48 pm
…in a major way – I suspect they meant because of the house explosion. That’s pretty major.
Also, I’m pretty sure that it is against plumbing code to run gas through copper lines. It is for natural gas anyway, not so sure about propane.
An 80-year-old Onawa, Iowa, man was hospitalized with burn injuries Tuesday afternoon after an explosion damaged an unoccupied rural Onawa home he owns.
The explosion happened about 12:30 p.m. in the basement at 20877 Gum Ave., where Earl Thelander had just plugged in a fan to help vent fumes from a propane line that had been cut in an alleged burglary earlier Tuesday, the Monona County Sheriff’s Office reported.
After the explosion, Thelander drove about two miles to his home, where he then was taken to Burgess Health Center in Onawa, said Carol Otto of Onawa, Thelander’s sister-in-law. Thelander was airlifted from Onawa to an Omaha burn unit, where he has second-degree burns over 40 percent of his body, Otto said. He is listed in critical condition.
“It’s so awful,” Otto said. “It doesn’t sound very good.”
At Burgess, Thelander told his family that he thought “all the gas was gone” prior to the explosion, Otto said.
Authorities said they believe the explosion is connected to a cut propane line on a furnace in the basement. The sheriff’s office had been called to the home Tuesday morning on a report of burglary and vandalism, but when deputies arrived, no one was there. No one has been arrested and there are no suspects, said Eric Martin, sheriff’s office dispatcher.
The burglar broke a door to get into the home and removed copper waterlines before attempting to take the copper propane line, the sheriff’s office reported. Thelander owns the home, which was vacant, neighbors said.
Siding was hanging off the front of the house, which the sheriff’s office said received considerable structural damage. The south wall of the home was blown out and is being held up by two poles, Otto said.
Sheriff’s deputies were assisted at the scene by the Onawa Fire Department and the Onawa Police Department.
“We’re all praying and hoping everything will be OK,” Otto said. Read Comments > |
Gaylen-California wrote on Sep 22, 2007 6:45 PM:
“Let’s not let this story die. Criminals should be brought to justice. There are people out there buying this hot stuff, they know it, they aren’t stupid enough to believe some of the stories. CA has a one week wait period to get your money, you have to show VALID ID. Maybe some of the heat should go onto the guys who buy stolen material. How about some good ole investigative reporting?”
Cindy Miller wrote on Sep 2, 2007 10:05 AM:
“We lost a wonderful man last night to an incident that neve should have happened. Anyone that knew Dad knows that there was not a mean bone in his body and some jerk just took that person away from a wife,6 kids and their spouses,10 grandchildren, 4 great grandchildren and a 2 foster grandchildren. Five more kids and their spouses, I don’t know how much more needs said, you get the picture? This is a senseless tragedy that should never have happened. Our only peace now is that he is not in pain and we WILL find those responsible and make them look all of us in the eyes to see what they robbed from us!”
Lori Mathes wrote on Aug 31, 2007 8:09 AM:
“My heart is aching every day for my stepfather, and I just keep praying that he will be strong enough to get through this. He is my Mother’s lifeline, and the thought of her having to go on without him only makes the aching worse. This family will not quit, until we find the person or people who are responsible for this. We ask for any help we can get…in bringing them to justice. PLEASE come forward if you have any information.”
Jody Ewing wrote on Aug 31, 2007 12:47 AM:
“Earl Thelander is not only my step-father, he’s the kindest, most gentle and decent man I’ve ever known. In his family and community, he’s regarded as a role model — someone who fully understands the difference between hard work and hard times — and one who’s led many by example through both. When Earl married my mother, Hope, 25 years ago come this December, that’s exactly what they shared…hope… Hope that his “6” children and her own “5” (+ the 2 of them) could somehow work together with that perfect baker’s dozen for the rest of all their lives. Mom and Earl, we’re all here for both of you and the cinnamon rolls are a’risin’! There’s a reason why God gave angels two wings.”
Nancy wrote on Aug 29, 2007 11:53 PM:
“I will Pray that he makes it i’m so sorry to hear about that i can’t beleve someone would do that and it almost killed the man.”
Doug Thelander wrote on Aug 29, 2007 10:52 AM:
“For less than $20 worth of old copper pipes, these cowardly thieves, with no thought of the consequences to innocent people, have caused a horrible accident, terrible trauma to a good man, and have affected the lives of dozens of close friends and family members. We ask for the community’s thoughts and prayers for our husband, father, and friend. We want this resolved. If anyone has any information about this crime, please call the Monona Co. Sheriff at 800-859-1414. Any information will be kept confidential. The Earl Thelander Family”
Officials Say Burglar Tried to Steal Copper Propane Line
POSTED: 9:50 am CDT August 29, 2007
ONAWA, Iowa — Western Iowa officials said an Onawa man suffered burns in a house explosion.
Earl Thelander, 80, was injured Tuesday afternoon in the blast that happened in the basement of a vacant house he owns in rural Onawa.
According to the Monona County Sheriff’s Office, Thelander had just plugged in a fan to help vent fumes from a propane line that had been cut on a furnace during a burglary. Officials said someone broke into the house and took copper waterlines and then tried to take the copper propane line.
After the explosion, Thelander drove to his home. He was taken to a hospital in Onawa, and then to a hospital in Omaha, Neb.
A thief who stripped copper tubing from an exterior propane tank is being blamed for a gas build-up resulting in an explosion that severely burned an 80-year-old Onawa, Iowa, man.
Earl Thelander suffered third-degree burns on nearly half of his body after his home exploded Tuesday. The explosion was the result of the copper tubing that led to the furnace being cut by “urban miners” who steal the tubing and recycle it for cash.
The copper stolen from the Thelander home was valued at about $15. Copper prices have skyrocketed in the past few years due to increasing global demand, resulting in rising theft rates.
“It’s one thing to steal copper water pipes,” said Onawa Mayor Rebecca Tanner. “But to steal copper gas pipes is beyond comprehension. This caused a tremendous explosion. Everyone knows how dangerous gas can be.”
The explosion blew out one wall and bowed another, but Thelander walked out of the blast and drove himself to the hospital. He was later transferred to a special burn unit in Omaha, Neb., where he remains in critical condition.
An 80-year-old Onawa, Iowa, man remained in critical condition Thursday with burns suffered in an explosion that occurred after metal thieves stealing copper pipes cut a propane line in the basement of a house he owned.
Earl Thelander was hospitalized at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha with second- and third-degree burns suffered in the blast.
“Realistically, looking at his age and severity of the injuries, this is just a tough, tough fight,” said his son Doug Thelander. “A good man is going through a lot of pain for nothing.”
Thieves seeking a quick buck from rising scrap metal prices have been stealing copper wire and pipe from abandoned homes, buildings under construction, churches and vehicles all summer.
On Tuesday, they hit the empty house owned by Earl Thelander, which he was preparing to sell. Thelander went to the house after learning that the thieves had removed copper tubing water lines and tried to steal the copper propane line.
“They cut it a foot above the furnace,” Doug Thelander said. “Why would they do that? They could have turned the gas off.”
The damaged line caused propane to leak into the basement, and authorities said Thelander triggered the explosion when he plugged in an electric fan to air out the basement.
Doug Thelander said his father used to be in the heating and air conditioning business and wasn’t “an old guy puttering around in the basement.”
He said he talked to his dad just before he was transported to Omaha.
“He said, ‘Doug, I didn’t smell anything.'”
Before Thelander entered the home, police and sheriff’s officials had already been in the house to investigate.
“We never should have been in there,” said Onawa Assistant Police Chief Joe Farrens. “The fumes were really strong.”
Authorities said the house suffered considerable structural damage. The case remains under investigation, but authorities didn’t have any leads as of Thursday.
Doug Thelander praised law enforcement for their efforts.
“I appreciate all that is being done,” he said. “We’ll do anything in our power to find out who is responsible for this.”
Metal has been a popular target for thieves trying to take advantage of scrap prices.
In June, someone took copper pipes from Omaha’s Shiloh Baptist Church, disabling its air conditioners. About a week earlier, several Omaha Public Schools vans were damaged when catalytic converters were taken for their platinum.
While metal theft in western Douglas County appears to have slowed, authorities said, western Iowa hasn’t been as lucky.
In Pottawattamie County, rural areas are seeing more metal thefts, said Sheriff Jeff Danker.
Thieves have taken wire from cell phone towers, metal from along railroad tracks, air conditioners and even parts of center pivot irrigation systems on farms.
“They’ll steal anything they can get. If there’s nobody around, people aren’t going to see the theft,” Danker said.
Danker said businesses should consider using fences and cameras to better protect property. Individuals, he said, should try to keep their property where they can see it and where potential thieves can’t.
“Keep them from seeing it from the road,” he said.
Copyright 2007 Omaha World Herald
Anyone with information on the case is asked to call the Monona County Sheriff’s Office at 800-859-1414.