Nearly 50 area rural churches hit in break-in series as suspects target cash

A surveillance camera caught this man apparently burglarizing a church in Lenawee County. Authorities say 50 churches in nine counties have been robbed.
A surveillance camera caught this man apparently burglarizing a church in Lenawee County. Authorities say 50 churches in nine counties have been robbed.

It’s just about the same every time — a window or door of a rural church is pried open, an office ransacked, and cash, if there’s any to be had, is taken.

Dozens of churches in southeast Michigan and a few in northwest Ohio — in total just fewer than 50, plus a Habitat for Humanity store — have been broken into since March.

“When you’re picking on small country churches, you’re really hitting the bottom of the barrel,” said the Rev. Jim McCourt of Summerfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Mich.

Summerfield was broken into late Nov. 25 or early Nov. 26.

“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “We would have tried to help them if we could have.”

Investigators from numerous agencies will meet Tuesday to share progress and information in the ongoing investigations, which authorities say they believe are related.

Break-ins have been reported in Ohio in Fulton County, and in Michigan in Lenawee, Monroe, Livingston, Genesee, Hillsdale, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, officials said.

In nearly every break-in, a suspect or suspects uses a tool to force open a window or a door — the church is almost always small and rural, so there’s little chance of surveillance systems or alarms.

A surveillance camera caught this man burglarizing a church in Lenawee County.
A surveillance camera caught this man burglarizing a church in Lenawee County.

Once inside, the suspects target office areas, likely presuming that any cash would be kept there, either in desk drawers, filing cabinets, or a safe.

A summary of the reported break-ins shows that cash — even if it’s only a jar of change — is the most commonly stolen item.

“It appears to be a cash grab,” Lenawee County Sheriff Jack Welsh said. “There has been some property stolen, but for the most part it’s cash or credit cards. In many cases they’ve passed up items of value.”

Officials seem to agree that there doesn’t appear to be much of a pattern as far as a path of travel and it doesn’t appear that any specific denomination is being targeted.

Erie Township, Mich., police Sgt. Dean Ansel is investigating one church break-in at the Erie United Methodist Church, 1100 Samaria Rd. It was reported Nov. 28.

There, someone broke into both the church and the fellowship hall by coming in through windows.

The thieves were apparently after “quick cash,” Sergeant Ansel said, adding that several items made of precious metal were left untouched.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Megan Walther, said the plastic jug of change that was taken had maybe $10 or $20 in it — money for camping scholarships.

“People feel like it’s their home almost and, even though nothing was taken, it still feels like a huge shock and an invasion of privacy,” she said.

Her husband’s church, Zion United Methodist Church in LaSalle, Mich., also was broken into.

The Rev. Joel Walther, who has been the pastor of the Monroe County church since July, 2011, said he’s aware of the church having been broken into on one other occasion since he’s been there.

“We’re kind of in a place where … if you’re not paying attention, you wouldn’t notice someone breaking into the building,” Mr. Walther said.

He added that the only thing taken from the church were two jars of change.

Mr. Walther and others from the church are now trying to get more lighting outside the church in an effort to deter more break-ins.

“It’s interesting, at this time of year we celebrate Christmas and light coming into darkness; light is something that drives away that action, that negative action,” Mr. Walther said.

Lenawee County has recorded the greatest number of break-ins — 11 — followed closely by Fulton, Washtenaw, and Monroe counties.

Sheriff Welsh suggested that churches obtain surveillance and alarms, although that might not help.

“Alarms don’t seem to bother these people too much, so that concerns me,” the sheriff said. “If anybody happened to walk into one of these, that’s a little concerning.”

Several church leaders said they do not keep cash in their buildings, which Sheriff Welsh said is good.

He also urged heightened awareness of anything that might seem suspicious — a light on at night, an open door or window, an unfamiliar vehicle in the lot.

Authorities Friday released photos from surveillance of at least two people of interest — one image was captured by a camera at a store where a suspect used a stolen gift card, officials said.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Lenawee County Crime Stoppers at 517-266-6161 or Fulton County Crime Stoppers at 1-800-255-1122.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: or 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @tdungjen_Blade.