Mom and Earl: They’re Famous, You Know

On March 9, 2008, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing
Hope and Earl Thelander

Hope and Earl Thelander

I swear I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping. In fact, I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time. I’d been saving it for a chapter in my book, but feel now I’ve got to share at least part of it as it relates to “Dad Earl” and my mother, Hope.

The year is 1992. We’d just recently moved to Northern California, where my husband had been assigned as an ammo inspector with the Department of Defense. My 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer (who, being very shy, made friends no easier than I had at her age), had unexpectedly brought two friends home from school. After introducing them to me, she ushered them toward her bedroom door, where on the other side I assumed they’d talk privately about the most important matters of the day — boys, teachers, moving to a new school and what-on-earth-ever-brought-you-Here?

But before they reached my daughter’s bedroom door, I couldn’t help but pick up on her words, and I had to stop and listen.

“Yeah, we’re from Iowa,” she said, “but you probably know my Grandma and Grandpa Thelander. They’re famous, you know.”

She said it so matter-of-factly. The tone languished somewhere between a child’s innocent bragging and one already versed in that which makes other people proud.

“Really?” I heard one of the girls respond.

“Oh yeah!” Jennifer said. “My Grandpa Earl and Grandma Hope … you know, the ones who rent out all those apartments? Everybody knows them and I thought for sure you’d have heard of them…”

And then her bedroom door closed and I heard only muffled voices.

I remember smiling, and thinking:

How could I have so underestimated the importance of what my parents do? Even my own daughter, at such a young age, clearly understood the role my mother and stepfather played in our community. Together, they bought old buildings and worked long hard hours renovating them into apartments to provide affordable housing for the less fortunate in our small town.

How could I have known that 15 years later, my stepfather would in fact make international headlines for having been killed trying to make life better for others?

The article in Australia’s Scone Advocate may have a couple minor details wrong (Earl was preparing the house for a new renter, not to sell), but the underlying truth rings loud and clear: copper theft isn’t a problem limited just to Iowa, nor even to the United States. It’s become an international problem, and is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars along with innocent lives.

Though Iowa legislators currently are working on House Study Bill 660 in efforts to control illegal copper theft sales, thieves continue to find willing salvage buyers at recycling businesses throughout and state and the U.S. In Las Vegas, Nev., where salvage yards have gone from 60 visitors a day to over 250 visitors a day with salvage wire, KVBC News Channel 3 Investigators recently purchased nearly $200 worth of copper pipe at a local home improvement store. Then, along with a hidden camera, they took the copper out to sell for salvage. The station randomly picked three recycling businesses from the phone book to see if they’d be asked for photo identification, required for salvage sales in Las Vegas.

All three salvage yards — the Silver Dollar yard on Lossee, Nevada Recycling, and a yard at Lakewood — purchased the copper without any identification. The seller’s ID as logged by Nevada Recycling? Zippy McGee.

With copper content at all-time highs between $3 and $4 a pound, the stories of copper theft are growing almost as fast as the illegal sales. In Buttonwillow, Calif., $10,000 worth of alfalfa withered and died after thieves stripped copper wires out of irrigation systems throughout California. Almost $38,000 in materials was stolen in June 2006 in 10 copper theft in Yelm, Olympia and Tenino in Washington state, and in Tacoma, the frequency of copper theft in the Nalley Valley industrial area now has investigators helping businesses install camera surveillance. Kentucky has seen at least three electrocution deaths associated with the theft or removal of electric copper wire. And just last month, Detroit Firehouse No. 42 experienced delayed response times due to a repeat copper theft.

I dare anyone to find a single state where copper theft is not a major problem. Still, to date there has been but one single innocent man who lost his life because of copper thieves. He became famous, all right, but I suspect my stepfather, Earl Thelander, would have preferred to remain anonymous and live out the rest of his life doing what he loved most: spending time with my mother, fixing up and providing homes for those less fortunate who couldn’t afford housing elsewhere, enjoying his family and grandchildren, and tending to his tomato plants.

A Message from my mother …

On November 7, 2007, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing

The post below is a message from my mother — as only she could write — in regard to what led up to and what happened immediately following the copper theft home explosion that claimed my stepfather’s life.

Two months after Earl’s death, Mom wrote this letter by hand and asked me to post it on my blog for her. I did take the liberty, however, of adding one of my favorite pictures of the two of them. They were still this much in love and so very happy right up until the day the copper thieves stole Earl’s life from him and from us.

Here is what my mom, Hope Thelander, wanted people to know.

Earl and Hope, the early years Earl Thelander and Hope Ewing before they married in 1982. A few months shy of their 25th wedding anniversary, Earl died from burns suffered in a house explosion after copper thieves stripped propane lines from a rural home the couple were renovating and let the home fill with propane gas. Earl and Hope had been working daily at the home  — which formerly belonged to Hope’s parents — and had reported the burglary and gas leak to local authorities earlier that morning. After all officials left the rural residence and Earl returned later that day to install a new water pump and tank, the home exploded when he plugged in a squirrel cage blower to help dry water from the basement floor due to water lines the copper thieves had also cut and stolen.

November 1, 2007

Two months ago today, my husband of nearly 25 years passed away at Clarkson Burn Center in Omaha of burns he suffered from an explosion at my parents’ old home in rural Onawa. Earl and I had purchased the home and had been finishing up work there after one of my daughters and her husband moved out.

Since the accident on August 28, and Earl’s subsequent death four days later, my family and friends have taken all interviews in order to protect my feelings at such a terrible time. There have been several newspaper accounts of that day, and though I am extremely grateful for the media’s help in keeping this investigation in the forefront, as Earl’s wife I feel I need to address some misinformation as to what actually took place.

Earl had turned off the propane at the tank when he first arrived at about 8:30 a.m. He then had me call the sheriff’s office to tell them of the break-in.

Between approximately 10-10:15 a.m., Sheriff Pratt and Officer Joe Farrens arrived to take a statement. At that time Sheriff Pratt, Joe Farrens, Earl and myself, my brother-in-law, Dave Anderson, and my daughter, Kysa Ewing, went through the house opening windows. (We later were told we didn’t have the explosion then because the oxygen level was too low.)

We all came back home to Onawa, having left open all windows and doors to ventilate the house.

At approximately 11:30 a.m., Earl went back to the farm to hook up a new water pump and tank in the basement. Ordinarily, I accompanied him when he was working at the farm, but he insisted it wouldn’t take long and that he would not be too late for lunch.

My nephew, Norman Johnson, arrived at our Onawa home shortly after that, bringing Earl and me some lunch.

Shortly after 12:00, Earl came in the door with his burned shirt hanging around him in shreds. He was badly burned and said the house “exploded” when he plugged in a squirrel cage blower to dry the water on the floor that had leaked after the water lines on the water heater had been cut. (Not to air any remaining propane fumes as has been mistakenly reported in the media.) Norman and I – not the ambulance – took Earl to the hospital where Dr. John Garred Jr. called for life flight to take Earl to the Clarkson Burn Center in Omaha. Dr. Garred explained to us the prognosis of someone Earl’s age surviving the vast scope of the third-degree burns was not good — despite Earl being otherwise quite healthy.

Four days later, after being kept in an induced coma to prevent pain, Earl passed away. At his side to say last goodbyes were his children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and myself.

We have been through anger, frustration, grief, loneliness and disbelief that he is gone, particularly because he was taken away so suddenly and there was so much more he wanted to do with his life. I miss him so much.

I miss the coffee breaks (every 15 minutes).

I miss him watching Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” at 7 p.m.

I miss seeing him fill the bird feeders and calling me to see a cardinal whenever they would fly in.

I wanted so badly to have him see that his three puny tomato plants produced literally hundreds of tomatoes.

If there is anything to be thankful about over this, it is that he didn’t have to endure months of painful treatments for his burns. In addition:

I’m thankful he didn’t know I was diagnosed with breast cancer six days after his funeral.

I’m thankful he was able to get out of the basement and drive home to me.

I’m thankful that he woke me up at 4 a.m. August 28 to look at the eclipse of the moon with him in what we didn’t know then had just become our last morning together.

I’m thankful that instead of five children, I have 11 to help me with the things he’d always insisted on doing himself.

Yes, he was a good man, a good friend, and a wonderful husband and father.

We will all miss him, but we will work together to solve this senseless and needless crime.

In Earl’s memory

Respectfully yours,

Hope Thelander

The Faces Behind Those Who Loved Dad Earl Thelander

On October 28, 2007, in Family, Videos, by Jody Ewing

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Yeah. It’s us.

The faces behind those who loved Dad Earl, as well as some of the events and people that often have made the days of our lives feel like ordinary miracles.