Authorities believe that at least 50 church robberies that have taken place across a string of Midwestern states in recent months – with the thieves taking everything from money for the poor to gift cards for seminary students – are connected.
According to a crime bulletin released by law enforcement agencies in southeast Michigan and northern Ohio, authorities are searching for two young white males caught on tape by security cameras. One man, wearing a navy blue sweatshirt, is holding a crowbar in the photos.
That was one of the weapons used to break into the Family Tabernacle Church of God in Unadilla Township, Mich., this fall. In fact, the church has been burglarized twice in the last year, but the most recent incident came on Oct. 30 when the robbers smashed a window and ransacked the church's office looking for money. Fortunately for the church, they had installed an alarm system after a break-in last spring saw over $7,000 worth of musical instruments stolen.
"After that we got an alarm system," Pastor Jeff Howard said in a phone interview Friday. "We're in a rural area, but on a state road with a lot of neighbors in front of us and on one side of us, so we felt pretty safe, but evidently we're not."
"They went into my office and looked for money," he said of the latest robbery. "When they went into the hallway, the alarm system went off and they left. We were really thankful for that. The police said the people who are doing this feel pretty safe because they know no one is in these churches, so it's a safe way to steal stuff. Since then we've added motion lights and security systems."
Howard's church is just one of many – stretching from Flint in eastern Michigan down into northern Ohio and even west into northern Indiana – that have been victimized, a string of robberies that Howard finds deeply disturbing.
"It shows that we as a society are moving away from God instead of moving towards Him. That concerns me," he said. "The thing that's puzzling is if we're responding to these tough times this way, it means people must be angry with God. That's disturbing. All our blood sweat and tears are in this building. It really hurt to see it torn apart like that, but at the same time it showed us how important what we are doing is for this community that we live in. I told them at church that the folks did this came to the right place for help, but they came in the wrong way and at the wrong time. We would still reach out to them today to do everything we could to help them. I just pray that they get the help they need."
Authorities have now posted security photos of two suspects, a development that sprang from an Oct. 7 break-in at Hope Lutheran Church in Linden, Mich.
"They came in the early morning and used a crowbar to break into the church through our doors. They pried open some filing cabinets and got into our safe. They were apparently only looking for money because they left all our computers and other equipment," Pastor Jim Roth said in a phone interview. "We don't store money here, but they took gift cards from our safe that were for seminary students. One of the gift cards was for Wal-Mart and they were able to get pictures of the guys at Wal-Mart in southern Michigan and it matches the ones we took with our security cameras."
"The police thought that because we got pictures of them here and there that that would be very helpful in catching them," Roth noted.
In a press release Friday from the Lenawee County Sheriff Department and the Michigan State Police, authorities said they are looking for two "people of interest" and they believe the break-ins – which started around Aug. 13 with a robbery in Woodstock Township – "are all related."
"We've got photos of the guys now, so that's good," Detective Jeff Smith of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office told ABC News. "We may get some leads coming in soon."
"The last I heard, there are well over 50 churches that have been broken into," he said. "Here in Monroe County I've got eight reports on my desk. They're mostly looking for money. They're going for small, out-of-the-way churches, not hitting the big churches. I think that is because these churches are out in the country, they may not have surveillance systems, they're usually on dark, unlit roads, and some of these congregations lock up after Sunday and don't come back until later in the week. The robbers know it's going to be a few days before the break-in will even be discovered."
According to Howard, the thieves are not getting away with considerable amounts of money, despite the huge number of churches they have hit.
"These guys are looking at prison time from these break-ins and with us, they didn't get anything. With some break-ins they're getting only $200," he said. "So even though they've broken into over 40 churches, they're not getting that much at all. It's just hard to justify it."