By CHRISTIN COYNE
A man accused in a copper theft that caused more than $52,000 in damages to an Aledo church two years ago, leaving Vacation Bible School students and other parishioners without air-conditioning during hot summer months, pleaded guilty Tuesday and has elected to have a Parker County jury decide his fate.
Billy Clay Wade, 49, pleaded guilty to one charge of felony criminal mischief and, because of his lengthy criminal history, faces 25 to 99 years, or life, in prison.
It wasn’t easy bringing Wade to trial for the incident, according to testimony presented to the six-man, six-woman jury Tuesday.
Wade, who absconded from his parole officer in May 2011, not only led officers in a pursuit and intensive manhunt south of Weatherford prior to his arrest in August 2011 but also escaped custody last year, leading to yet another search for his whereabouts, law enforcement officers testified.
The custodian for the newly built Holy Redeemer Catholic Parish building off Old Weatherford Road in East Parker County, David Headlee, told jurors he arrived at his parish on a Thursday in May 2011 to find that five of the eight industrial-size air-conditioning units on the roof top had been destroyed.
Investigators testified that the copper inside the units had been removed, and they found a cigarette butt and a bracelet on the roof, as well.
The church had a $10,000 deductible on insurance coverage for the damage and new units were not installed and functional until late July or early August, Headlee said. The unusually hot summer particularly impacted the parish’s Vacation Bible School because the classrooms and multi-purpose area had no air-conditioning, according to Headlee.
At least six other Parker County churches reported similar copper thefts during the summer of 2011, as well.
The Parker County Sheriff’s Office caught a break in the case after Fort Worth police reported that Wade was caught on the roof of a Toys “R” Us in Tarrant County in a similar case, according to testimony.
After locating Wade living under an assumed name in a stolen trailer with stolen property and driving a truck reported stolen, the Weatherford-Parker County Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team attempted to take him into custody on Tarrant County felony and parole violation warrants in August 2011, Tim Oglesby with the Parker County Sheriff’s Office told jurors.
However, Wade led them in a vehicle pursuit south of Weatherford that ended with a wreck in the front yard of a home on dead-end Montgomery Lane, Oglesby said, adding that the pursuit continued on foot before they lost the suspect. Despite an approximately 5-mile perimeter set up and hours of searching with two helicopters, Wade eluded authorities.
Two days later, officers located him at a family member’s home in Tarrant County and arrested him.
After his arrest, investigator James Allain obtained a search warrant for Wade’s DNA. Wade then admitted to stealing copper from the church, something that was confirmed by the DNA testing on the cigarette butt, according to testimony.
Wade told Allain that he used to burglarize homes, but it was risky and he had trouble selling the stolen items. Instead he stole copper from A/C units and could make $1,000 in 30 minutes, Wade told Allain during an interview played for jurors.
He initially denied involvement in the Aledo church copper theft, saying “I’m a Christian man,” but later admitted to the incident, telling Allain that he and a man named “Josh” were involved, according to the recording.
Allain said investigators were unable to locate the man called Josh and don’t know if he was involved.
After being found incompetent to stand trial last fall, Wade was transported to North Texas State Hospital in Wichita Falls last fall and quickly escaped custody, according to testimony.
He was rearrested about two months later and subsequently found to be competent.
Testimony is expected to continue Wednesday morning.