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The simultaneous nature of the vandalism at two separate SMILE locations suggest it was malicious

DAVID F. ASHTON - HVAC technician Ray Hughes was discouraged about the extensive damage vandals did to the air conditioning unit at historic Oaks Pioneer Church, on S.E. Spokane Street at Grand, which SMILE manages. As July ended and August began, in the height of the Portland heat wave, vandals damaged the air conditioning unit outside SMILE Station on 13th Avenue in Sellwood, and similarly damaged – and perhaps destroyed – the A/C unit behind the Oaks Pioneer Church, blocks away on S.E. Spokane Street, which SMILE also manages and books.

SMILE is the acronym for the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League, the oldest neighborhood association in the city, and the only one of Portland's 95 that owns its own building.

"This occurred sometime between July 31 and August 1," confirmed Central Precinct Neighborhood Response Team A/Sgt. Shaun Sahli. "No suspects are listed in the report."

Those who met in SMILE Station starting August 1st had reported that the air conditioning system wasn't functioning. A look outside showed why: The copper refrigerant tubing had been snipped at the compressor, all the way up the wall – perhaps with bolt cutters – and removed.

Then, a custodian who started up the air conditioning system at Oaks Pioneer Church, near Sellwood Riverfront Park, reported seeing thick black smoke billowing from its compressor unit. There, a three-foot length of copper refrigerant tubing had been snipped and removed on the same night.

At first, SMILE Station and Church Manager Lorraine Fyre wondered if the copper might have been stolen to be sold at a recycling center. But, according to Portland Iron & Metal, Inc., they only pay about $2.30 per pound for top-quality copper – making this, at best, a $6 criminal caper. That raised the possibility of malicious vandalism.

"We bid out the repair job at the SMILE Station, and had it repaired in about a week," Fyre told THE BEE. "But, the repair cost about $2,000, which is equivalent to the cost of four of our annual Easter Egg Hunts."

The situation at Oaks Pioneer Church was critical, because of upcoming weddings that had been booked there. Since Portland Parks & Recreation pays for HVAC maintenance in the church, a City of Portland repairman tried unsuccessfully to make a rapid repair.

"After removing the cover of the outdoor compressor unit, the repair person said he found many syringes and hypodermic needles had been stuck into the vents, along with several handfuls of dirt dumped into the top," Fyre remarked.

A week later, at the church, HVAC serviceman Ray Hughes looked discouraged while he worked on the system. Between the times he'd worked on the system over the previous few days, more needles kept appearing inside – and it looked to him as if someone had tried to pry needles out to reuse them.

Due to the extensive damage to the system, it appeared likely that the church's A/C system would have to be totally replaced.

"The area behind the church is lighted; and Portland Police officers have vowed to step up patrols in the area," said Fyre. "We're asking neighbors to keep an eye out for activity behind the church – but please report suspicious activity to the police, and do not confront them."

Fyre brought in electric fans for the several weddings and events at the church in early August. "We explained that the air conditioning system was vandalized; all of the people were very understanding, and accepting of the situation."

SMILE President Joel Leib commented to THE BEE, "It is far less than ideal to suddenly have no air conditioning for the weddings, business meetings, and other gatherings scheduled for both locations, right in the middle of an unusually hot summer.

"We truly appreciate that everyone involved has been so understanding about our situation. While unfortunate, this will have no lasting impact on any services our neighborhood association provides in the future."

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