Burglars hit South Jersey Habitat for Humanity site for third time

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Gloucester County Habitat for Humanity official Ketty Christian at a work site in Deptford that has been burglarized three times since spring.

For the third time since the spring, thieves have stolen tools and other equipment from a construction trailer on the work site of two Habitat for Humanity houses in Deptford Township.

The one-story ranch-style homes are being built side by side in the 800 block of Tanyard Road. Each will be inhabited by the end of the year by a single mother, one an office worker and the other a Marine Corps veteran who works as a welder.

“It’s a little scary because this is the third time this has happened,” said Tiaera Ratliff, 30, of Sewell, who is scheduled to move into one of the houses in the fall with her 6-year-old son, Ethan.

Ratliff, an office worker studying to be a teacher, has been staying with her stepmother for more than a year. She said an alarm system would be first on her list of purchases when she moves in.

The tools taken in the repeated burglaries were worth a total of $5,000, Habitat officials said. The latest loss is particularly devastating, according to Anthony Isabella, executive director of the Gloucester County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, which is facilitating the construction.

The nonprofit helps build houses for moderate- and low-income families via volunteer labor, including help from the people who will inhabit the homes.

“After three times at the same location … it just feels awful for everyone involved,” said Isabella. “If I had the chance to say something to these people who are doing this, I would say it’s like you are going into a church and stealing from the collection plate.”

The latest burglary follows a pattern of recent thefts at Habitat for Humanity chapters in the region, including one last month in Salem County and another last fall in Philadelphia in which thieves stole tools from the charity’s construction sites. Stolen power tools are lucrative to sell on the black market, according to law enforcement officials.

“I think we’re particularly vulnerable because our construction sites may be manned only 12 hours a week, because we are on a volunteer schedule and the thieves know this,” Isabella said.

Ketty Christian, event and fund-raising director for the agency, said the theft may slow the project’s construction schedule.

“This latest break-in comes as a huge blow to our organization, and maybe even our schedule for completing these projects. … It’s devastating to think that these thieves are willing to steal from a charity, from single mothers, and even a veteran,” Christian said.

After being burglarized twice before at the same site, the organization thought it was one step ahead of the thieves when it secured the equipment — including five nail guns, a portable compressor, and a chop saw and stand — inside a trailer protected with chains when crews left the work site Tuesday.  And after the two previous thefts, Christian said, the charity had “wised up” and also had all its tools engraved with serial numbers and the name of the organization so they could be traced if they ended up for sale on Craigslist or at pawnshops.

“We thought we were safe, but somehow these thieves managed to cut through the heavy-duty chains we were using and break into the trailer and again steal our tools,” Christian said.

The organization’s construction volunteers are on a Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday work schedule at the site, and the theft likely occurred sometime between the time work ended Tuesday night and crews arrived Thursday morning, Christian said.

A similarly devastating theft occurred at a Habitat for Humanity work site in November at 16th and Fontain Streets in North Philadelphia when tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tools and equipment being used for the construction of 16 homes was stolen. Last month, $4,000 worth of tools belonging to volunteers were stolen from one of the organization’s work sites in Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, police said.

Those who will eventually inhabit the homes in Deptford are “partner families” who assist the volunteer work crews with the construction, Christian said.

One of the homes — a modular scheduled to be finished by the beginning of October — is to go to Ratliff.  The other house is being built for Marine veteran Rosa Pineiro of Deptford, who served four tours as a machine gunner and welder in Afghanistan. She is now is an ironworker and welder’s apprentice in the private sector.  She could not be reached for comment.