A 5,300-pound bell that survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and is worth an estimated $75,000 was stolen last weekend by recycling thieves probably hoping to scrap it for about $10,000.
The theft of this historic bell from St. Mary’s Cathedral is just the latest in a rash of alarming metal thefts across The City. The Police Department recently launched a special investigations unit specifically to combat such thefts.
In another heist last weekend, crooks cut several thousand dollars worth of copper from a building owned by Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, San Francisco police Inspector Brian Danker said. Sacred Heart recently acquired the building to house a nonprofit organization, he added.
The prior week, a bronze plaque honoring slain Supervisor Harvey Milk was pilfered from Muni’s Castro station. The plaque, worth $10,000, had been bolted to a wall.
In the case of the St. Mary’s bell, which a tourist reported missing on Sunday morning, Danker believes the thieves were professionals. They left behind no other damage or markings on the ground.
“The lowlife that did this had to use a large truck,” he said. “It’s the size of the Liberty Bell — minus the crack.”
The bell was built in Baltimore’s McShane Bell Foundry in 1889 and first installed at the St. Mary’s Cathedral on Van Ness Avenue. After surviving the 1906 earthquake, the cathedral was ravaged by a fire, and the bell was moved to the St. Mary’s on Geary Boulevard in 1970.
The cathedral had planned to retrofit the bell and find a spot to use it.
“We cannot replace this historic and valuable item,” said George Wesolek, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. “Hopefully, the police will recover it, and we can put it back in its rightful place as a memory of the Catholic Church in San Francisco.”
An archdiocese statement placed its value at $75,000, but as a source of scrap metal, the 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin bell’s value is about $12,000.
To evade suspicion from scrap metal dealers, recycling thieves often break such objects into pieces and melt them down before selling them, Officer Albie Esparza said.
Certain metals garner big bucks. San Francisco Scrap Metal in Potrero Hill buys copper piping
for up to $2.70 per pound, bronze and brass for up to $2, aluminum for up to 60 cents and stainless steel for up to 55 cents, owner Pat Curtis said.
A 2008 California law forbids recycling centers from paying unlicensed metal sellers for three business days. Curtis said that allows owners time to contact police if they suspect theft. Curtis noted that she has a direct line to San Francisco police and PG&E to report stolen metals.
Curtis said she records sellers’ identification and license plate information during recycling transactions, while video surveillance tracks vehicles arriving at the facility.
Police said there is a “substantial reward” for anyone who can provide information that leads to the bell’s recovery. Danker said he’s less concerned with an arrest than with the return of the bell.
Anyone with information on these thefts is encouraged to call the Police Department tip line at (415) 575-4444 or Danker at (415) 614-3463.
A growing trend
Metal thefts are increasing in San Francisco, which recently established a special police unit to combat such robberies.
August: Thieves posing as construction workers steal copper from Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, the French School, St. Brendan’s Church and St. Emydius Catholic Church.
September: Three people are arrested at a recycling center after buying stolen copper and other metals from undercover police officers.
October: Someone steals a plaque commemorating slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk from the wall of Muni’s Castro station.