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Rash Of Burglaries Plagues Spokane, Cda Churches Holy Ground Is Fertile Ground For Crooks

Thu., Jan. 25, 1996

Holy ground means nothing to these burglars.

They have ripped sacred symbols from church walls. They have taken a statue of Mary with the baby Jesus. They have left a threatening note for a church pastor.

For the past four months, Coeur d’Alene and Spokane churches have been plagued by a rash of late-night burglaries.

The crooks have broken church windows and kicked in chapel doors. They have purloined thousands of dollars’ worth of computers, videocassette recorders and cameras.

Investigators say these poorly protected holy places are sitting ducks. And like a sharpshooting hunter, someone is picking them off one by one.

“When criminals find an easy mark to gain what they want to gain, they follow it through until it runs out of profit for them or until they get caught,” said Lisa Schueller, Kootenai County sheriff’s detective.

Thirty-two Spokane churches have been burglarized since October; 10 Coeur d’Alene churches have been hit - one of them five times.

“Churches have always been vulnerable,” said Lt. Jack Morris of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department.

Most have television sets, VCRs and sound equipment. A little petty cash often is easily available, too.

And most don’t have expensive alarm or security systems.

“A lot of these churches are built on charity, so it’s not surprising they have a lack of security,” Schueller said. “Security costs money.”

Most chapels also are empty after 9 p.m. Some even leave their doors open around the clock to allow worshipers to pray at any hour.

“You can drive up and break a window or break in a door and sit back and see if the police come,” Morris said. “If the police don’t come, you’re pretty much free.”

“We’re built to welcome people, not keep them out,” said Dave Maher, associate pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Coeur d’Alene.

In late December, someone kicked in three of the church’s doors and took $10 in petty cash and an old VCR that has been stolen twice before.

In the process, the burglars also punched holes in a wall, broke a sliding glass window and crushed out a burning cigarette in the carpet.

Then they left a message warning the pastor not to come after them “if you love your family.”

Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai County and Spokane investigators say it’s likely that most of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene church burglaries are related - committed either by the same group or individual.

The mode of operation has been similar in many of the burglaries.

The crooks force their way into a church by kicking in a door, breaking out a window or prying an entrance open with a crowbar.

Then they hunt for the church’s electronic equipment, which can be pawned or traded easily, Schueller said.

“It makes you feel frightened and vulnerable,” said Tammy Bray, secretary for Lighthouse Christian Academy. “We’re all kind of shell-shocked.”

The school, located in the basement of the Church of the Nazarene in Coeur d’Alene, has been broken into twice this month.

On Jan. 13, burglars took $2,000 worth of computer equipment. On Jan. 18, they swiped $50 in cash, a camera and a VCR.

St. Pius X Catholic Church in Coeur d’Alene has been one of the hardest hit - broken into five times since December.

The thieves took a $2,000 statue of the Virgin Mary. They ripped a crucifix and a sanctuary lamp from church walls but did not take them, said the Rev. Roger LaChance.

The thieves also damaged the tabernacle - an item considered most holy by the church - while trying to break into it. And they broke out a window to get $20.

“It’s a violation,” said LaChance.

“I work a lot of burglaries, so I am exposed to it, but that just doesn’t seem right in a church of all places,” said Darryl Cutler, a St. Pius member and the Coeur d’Alene police detective who is investigating the city’s string of church burglaries.

There has been one piece of good news for the church. The statue of Mary was returned by an anonymous person, LaChance said.

Police are urging churches to install whatever security measures they can afford or to work with their congregations to keep watch over their buildings.

St. Pius no longer keeps its chapel open around the clock, and parishioners have helped raise $2,000 to buy better security, LaChance said.

School officials at the Church of the Nazarene are trying to take expensive equipment home with them.

“The only other option is to put bars up on the windows and get some kind of security system,” Bray said. “But for us that’s not feasible. We’re just trying to save for a new copier.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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