Saturday, April 30, 2011

Westminster Suspect Denies Stealing School Sign

The man facing charges for recycling a stolen sign from Westminster Schools of Augusta claims another man paid him to do it.

Gary Lee Harding told The Jail Report on Saturday that he plans to surrender Monday to face charges related to the theft. But he said he is not the person who removed the bronze sign from the driveway of the Wheeler Road school. Harding says he does not even know what Westminster is.

"Somebody told me it's a Catholic school?" he asked. "It just says 'Westminster.' I don't know what that is."

The sign was recovered at Campbell's Recycling, and that business' records helped lead authorities to Harding. Investigators have since issued an arrest warrant for the 54-year-old Augusta man. He is shown here from a 2009 arrest for marijuana.

Harding said a black man he knows only as Joe -- or possibly "Unc. Joe" -- approached him at Minnick Park and paid him $80 to take the muddy sign and recycle it for money. The guy said he didn't have an ID to be able to recycle it, according to Harding. He was supposed to meet the guy near the recycling center.

"He asked me if I would carry it down there. Like an idiot, I carried it down there," said Harding.

Still, law enforcement officials are charging Harding in the crime. The suspect said his wife has lung cancer and a sheriff's investigator was sympathetic enough to let him work out a day to surrender.

Harding describes himself as a dumpster diver who looks for recyclable items other people throw away. He said he is unemployed except for a small part-time job, but that he even looked through garbage when he was employed.

In recent months, area law enforcement officials have witnessed an increasing number of copper and other metal thefts of everything from air conditioners and plumbing to sprinkler systems and ground wires.

The Westminster sign was removed from the driveway of the school at 3067 Wheeler Road on Monday. Initially, school officials thought it may have been high school senior pranksters.

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