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Brick rustlin' on the rise

A red brick building in St. Louis

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: For the last few years one of the frustrations of the construction business has been thieves who steal copper, but now crooks have their eye on more than just pipes and wire. Despite the slump in housing there's still a strong demand for used bricks. And, Matt Sepic reports from St. Louis, a crime known as "brick rustling" is on the rise there.


MATT SEPIC: Sure, St. Louis is best known for its modern stainless steel arch, but venture away from downtown into the old residential areas and nearly every building is made of solid red brick.

Rich clay deposits here made St. Louis the nation's brick manufacturing capital a century ago, but now thieves are tearing entire walls off abandoned buildings just to get that brick.

Larry Giles of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation says the problem has escalated.

LARRY GILES: There's been a big interest in stealing ornament from buildings now for the past 10 or 15 years. But within the last several years, the brick thievery has been a big issue, particularly on the near north side.

The vast majority of used brick dealers are on the up and up. Bud Boldt buys bricks from demolition companies, who get city permits when they tear down buildings.

Boldt says four years ago he sold bricks to construction companies for around 18 cents apiece. They now fetch nearly twice that, and some dealers are getting even more.

He says most go to Southern states, where demand is high and builders want them to give brand new McMansions an Old World veneer.

BUD BOLDT: Our brick has a certain character to it. It's a prettier brick. We have a distinctive color up here that no place else in the United States, and that's because of the clay.

You might think tearing down abandoned buildings and recycling the bricks to beautify new homes would be a good thing, but Michael Allen doesn't see it that way.

He's rehabbing a place on St. Louis' near north side and he says the building carcasses brick rustlers leave behind keep other potential home buyers away from his neighborhood.

MICHAEL ALLEN: They've actually taken down three walls on a lot of these buildings, and so they're nothing more than a front facade and some sagging building material inside.

He's concerned all that mess is driving down the value of property in the area, including his.

There's a new law on the books here meant to combat brick rustling, but Allen and others say this particular crime is a low priority for police.

In St. Louis, I'm Matt Sepic for Marketplace.

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