Thefts have churches on alert

| June 14, 2010

At Westwood Hills Church of God, Senior Pastor Bob Kuschel had a warning for thieves.

"We have pit bulls and alligators," as well as razor wire, Kuschel laughed Sunday after a morning service.

Kuschel was kidding. But, joking aside, like other area churches, security is not an issue Westwood Hills takes lightly.

Doors are locked, and there's a person who lives on the property, Kuschel said. Plus, with many activities at the property at 1520 N.W. 34th St., he said the building is often occupied, which should deter would-be burglars.

Once viewed as taboo for thieves and safe from crime, places of worship are no longer off criminals' lists, say area law enforcement.

On June 7, someone early that Monday morning tried to break into one church on Northwest 23rd Avenue. Thieves did get into and rummage through an office at a neighboring church that same morning.

And last year, officers in Alachua, Citrus, Hernando, Levy, Marion and Sumter counties warned they had reports of a rash of church burglaries where thieves would pry open doors or get in through windows to steal cash and other valuables.

The most recent church burglary cases, which remain unsolved, have the same characteristics as the earlier break-ins, said Alachua County Sheriff's Office spokesman Art Forgey. It's too early to say if there is a connection to any of the past burglaries still under investigation.

Leaders at places of worship along Northwest 23rd Avenue and Northwest 16th Boulevard did not say they had increased security following last week's break-ins, although most said they had heard of the recent crimes or the string of burglaries in different counties. Instead, several said it is a sign of the times and the reason they already have security measures in place.

"People have lost respect for the church," said the Rev. James Johnson at Greater Liberty Hill United Methodist Church, the next closest church to the two break-ins at North Central Baptist Church and Pentecostals of Gainesville. Tougher economic times also may be driving the thefts, he said.

"We do feel that the church should be open at all times," but with people willing to break in it can't be, Johnson said. The United Methodist Church building is protected by an alarm and a fence.

A video camera is posted near the start of the driveway into Pentecostals of Gainesville. A sign at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1521 N.W. 34th St., notifies people that, "No $ ever kept on premises."

Forgey said some churches in the area have set up "brigades" made up of members, some officers, who are asked to keep an eye out for suspicious activity and help prevent both property and violent crime.

The groups are a response to reports of attacks on congregations as well as thefts and vandalism at places of worship.

In addition to break-ins, law enforcement also have heard that copper thieves are targeting churches. The thefts have occurred particularly in rural areas where suspects strip the buildings' air conditioning systems so they can sell the metal.

"I think the times have changed," Forgey said. "(Churches) were never locked, and people would have never thought of stealing from a church. I guess a lot of people don't see them as places of worship anymore. It's just a building."

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Category: Church Security

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