The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Cape Coral Police Department held a press conference Wednesday afternoon in Fort Myers to announce the results of a dismantling of a theft ring.
Operation “Thou Salt Not Steal” Targeted Theft of Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Church Donations Across the United States
Investigators say six suspects stole more than $ 740,000 from 600 churches and denominational schools nationwide, including beating dozens of them in southwest Florida.
“They would divide the checks among themselves to be deposited into various bank accounts using ATMs,” said Shane Pollard of FDLE. “Once the money was deposited into the account, they immediately withdrew the funds in cash before the banks realized that the checks were in fact made payable to the churches and not to the suspects.”
The suspects operated from Orlando, but struck churches in Lee and Collier counties by stealing checks from church mailboxes. One of the victims was Grace Church in Cape Coral, where $ 7,000 was stolen.
Investigators say the suspects used the money to buy clothes, food, vehicles and entertainment.
“It was almost a perfect crime as COVID-19 swept across the country,” Pollard said. “Some church members stayed home after in-person church services and mailed their offerings to them.”
Four suspects are in custody and investigators are looking for two more: Catalin Trandafir and Simona Trandafir
“The number of stolen churches is over 700, but I expect that number to increase as we continue to investigate,” Pollard said.
Going to church and donating money are part of Gayle Malvezzi’s life.
“I would usually write a check for four to six weeks or something depending on my mood and my bank account,” said Malvezzi, who attends services at New Hope Church in Cape Coral.
Malvezzi was shocked when she received a call from the church.
“Someone had stolen the checks, and mine happened to be one that was stolen,” Malvezzi said.
Reports show that Cape Coral’s New Hope Church was among those in southwest Florida affected by suspects accused of running a theft ring.
“I’m blessed it wasn’t my last $ 300,” Malvezzi said. “But for the church, it could have been someone’s electric bill or someone’s food for a month.”
Back in the days when donations were stolen, that’s exactly what they were used for.
“It was literally food; it was the rent money; it was money to pay an electricity bill; water bill by paying money, ”said Senior Pastor David Acton of New Hope Church.
It didn’t just help the churches to stay afloat. Several churches have told us that the money helps people in their communities make ends meet.
“I assumed it was kids or maybe people in the community who just didn’t know what else to do to make ends meet,” Acton said. “Now that I know that wasn’t it. It was actually a bigger network of thieves probably from another country, yeah, I’m pretty ticked off.
Investigators say the thieves sent large sums of money abroad to Romania. But despite the crippling blow, churches say they are grateful for the community’s continued generosity.
“While it was disappointing and disheartening for us, we were still able to continue our mission and focus on our impact in our community,” said Executive Pastor Taylor Foley of Grace Methodist Church.
Churches are also making changes to make sure donations get to the people who need them. Some people replace mailboxes with locks and they point security cameras at them. Others direct all their mail to a PO box so they can pick it up in person.
Watch the full press conference below or click here.
SWFL churches victims of thieves’ ring
- Grace United Methodist Church, 13 SE 21st Place, Cape Coral, Florida
- New Hope Baptist Church, 431 Nicholas Parkway, Cape Coral, Florida
- Lutheran Church of Permanent Love, 3205 Chiquita Blvd. South, Cape Coral, Florida
- Providence Christian Church, 701 Mohawk Parkway, Cape Coral, Florida 5. Cape Coral Community Church, 811 Santa Barbara Blvd., Cape Coral, Florida
- Lutheran Church of the Messiah, 2691 Pine Island Road, Cape Coral, Florida
- Grace Baptist Church, 1300 Ceitus Terrace, Cape Coral, Florida
- First Baptist Church, 4117 Coronado Parkway, Cape Coral, Florida
- Cape Baptist Church, 435 SE 10th Terrace, Cape Coral, Florida
- Lutheran Church of Peace, 15840 McGregor Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida
- Crossroads Baptist Church, 1071 Palm Beach Blvd., Fort Myers, Florida
- Iona Hope Episcopal Church, 9650 Gladiolus Drive, Fort Myers, Florida
- Southwest Florida Baptist Church, 16940 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, Florida
- Faith United Methodist Church, 15690 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, Florida
- Zion Lutheran Church, 7401 Winkler Road, Fort Myers, Florida
- Next Level Church East, 2645 Forum Blvd., Unit # 547, Fort Myers, Florida 17. Beach Baptist Church, 130 Connecticut Street, Fort Myers, Florida
- Gateway Trinity Lutheran Church (GTLC), 11381 Gateway Blvd., Fort Myers, Florida
- Cypress Lake United Methodist Church, 8570 Cypress Lake Dr, Fort Myers, Florida
- Fort Myers God Calvary Assembly, 11431 Palm Beach Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida
- San Damiano de Saint Clare Monastery, 6029 Estero Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida 22. North Shore Alliance Church, 330 W. Martana Ave, Fort Myers, Florida
- First Church of the Nazarene, 13545 American Colony Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida
- Rosa De Saron AG Church, 13235 Palm Beach Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida