Stakeouts target church thieves Police investigating several suspects in multiple burglaries

November 14, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Burglars have struck area churches at least two dozen times in the past several months, stealing anything from cash to food supplies intended for the poor.

In Laurel, the thefts became such a problem that undercover police officers waited overnight, alone in church offices, hoping to catch someone.

They did.

On Thursday, a Laurel officer caught a man breaking into First Baptist Church in Laurel, said Jim Collins, department spokesman.

Charged with second-degree burglary is Garry Dennis Leech of the 9300 block of Gorman Road in Savage.

Leech is a suspect in several other burglaries in Laurel, police said, as well as in thefts from churches in Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Detectives said they are also looking at several other suspects who could be involved in the thefts from 10 area churches.

The thieves robbed churches not only in different areas, but also of different denominations -- Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran -- stealing wine bottles, knives, televisions, radios, videocassette recorders and cash.

"They were items that you could easily dispose of," Collins said. "There wasn't a lot taken out of each one, but after you added it up, it became a good amount."

Damage to doors and windows sometimes exceeded $500.

Last month, Howard County police arrested a Baltimore woman, Kristian C. Meehan, 19, accusing her of breaking into the First Baptist Church Savage in September, ransacking the offices and cooking herself a spaghetti dinner. Meehan is charged with second-degree burglary, fourth-degree burglary and theft.

After the break-in, church officials said they discovered that several boxes of canned goods food meant for needy families

were missing.

"The idea of taking food that goes to poor people, that was kind of disturbing," said Jacky Waller, who is in charge of the church food bank. "We would be glad to give it to anyone who asked."

A month later, thieves struck the church again, smashing a window, Howard County police said, and ransacking the offices before stealing a television and stereo system. Police, who are investigating several suspects in the case, are not surprised that churches are being targeted.

"For one thing, they usually don't have alarms, and nobody lives in" churches, said Cpl. Ed Sprinkle, the Howard County detective investigating the burglaries.

After the second burglary, on Oct. 26, First Baptist officials installed an alarm system.

Early Thursday, thieves smashed two windows to the pastor's office and computer room. The alarm blared, and the thieves fled.

At First United Methodist Church in Laurel, thieves broke windows and stole petty cash in the summer. In the fall, church officials say, burglars ransacked offices three times, prying a hinge from a safe, breaking down locked doors and stealing a camera, calculator, boomboxes and cash.

Thieves even struck on a recent Sunday morning before services. Associate pastor Mark Teasdale stood before 150 worshipers explaining why police cars were parked outside. He gave a sermon about love and forgiveness.

"Even the burglars, we have to be able to love the burglars," Teasdale said yesterday. "That doesn't mean we're against imprisoning them, but we have to learn to love them."

As church ministers and congregations tried to make sense of what many say is a senseless crime, the thieves began striking more often, sometimes entering the same church on consecutive nights.

Laurel police decided set up stakeout operations, putting officers in church offices overnight to try to catch the burglars.

"Well, burglaries are bad enough," Collins said. "But when you start breaking into churches, where you worship the Lord, it's like the lowest form of burglary."

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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