FORT MYERS, Fla. — A police fraud investigator's observation skills brought down a wide-ranging ring of accused thieves who stole donations from churches throughout southwest Florida and across the nation, officials report.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Wednesday arrested four of six members of the alleged Romanian nationals' theft ring in Orlando and are looking for two others as part of Operation Thou Shalt Not Steal.
"These individuals, until very recently, were stealing money from churches across the country," Shane Pollard, FDLE Special Agent in Charge of Fort Myers Regional Operations, said at a media briefing Wednesday.
Pollard said the theft ring is charged with stealing more than 1,700 checks from 636 churches, including 355 in Florida, totaling more than $760,000. He added that the thefts got their start in Lee County in November 2019 and then spread countrywide.
Law enforcement said the suspects purchased vehicles, food and clothing with the stolen donations, and they frequently sent high-value wire transfers to Romania.
"We began our investigation in December after Cape PD officers identified 24 victim churches within Lee County, plus additional victims outside their jurisdiction," Pollard said. "It was almost a perfect crime as Covid-19 swept the country. Some church members stayed home from in-person church services and mailed in their offerings."
The mailbox is the focal point of how the thefts were carried out, Pollard said.
"This theft ring took full advantage of the situation, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in church donations out of church mailboxes," he said.
The investigation showed that thieves would visit churches on days there were no services, stopped at the mailboxes and took all the mail, including envelopes with checks.
They hit up to 85 churches a day, Pollard said, many churches targeted multiple times.
Pollard said there is surveillance video of some of the thefts.
Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, Florida, is affected
Among the 24 Lee County churches affected by the thefts was Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, Florida.
Grace United executive pastor Taylor Foley said the church first caught wind that there was something amiss in the summer when its offices reopened.
"We had a dozen families affected," he said. "We actually had a family reach out to us and meet with one of our pastors concerned that their giving was not being reflected on the quarterly giving statements we send out."
He said the family's checks to the church had been cashed and endorsed and the family was concerned.
"We did our own internal review, just to make sure our internal checks and balances were being followed," he said, which was confirmed.
After checking with the bank and finding out that the checks were not being cashed into the church account and church officials then got in touch with Cape Coral police and state law enforcement.
Any funds that get recovered, Foley said, will go to the families, not the church. "We'll let them decide what to do," he said.
Pollard said that restitution will be part of the case as it winds its way through the court system.
"Any moneys we are able to recover, that will be applied to indemnify any of the church victims," he added.
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The affected Florida churches outside Lee County
Cape Coral Police Department Deputy Chief Lisa Barnes lauded Cape Coral Police Fraud Detective Meghan Hicks for her efforts in getting the investigation off just a local level.
"Detective Meghan Hicks was initially assigned two theft reports," Barnes said. "She quickly realized that this case had the potential to become very broad and cross over multi-jurisdictions."
Barnes said Hicks reached out to FDLE and the Florida attorney general's office and the case grew from five checks and about $940 to uncovering theft of more than 1,700 checks and more than $760,000.
Barnes said breaking the case provided a tremendous sense of relief to the Cape Coral police.
"When you see churches preyed upon, during Covid, you get a sense of accomplishment," to solve the case, Barnes said.
Florida churches outside Lee County feeling the sting of lost donations included various congregations spanning multiple denominations in Naples, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach, Summerfield, Leesburg, Lake Mary, Longwood, Sanford, and Orange City.
Churches outside Florida that had one or more checks made payable to said church, but deposited into the subjects’ bank accounts were in North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Illinois.
Wisconsin and Oregon churches were also on the list, Pollard confirmed, and added that the case remains active with more victims possible.
After taking the checks, Pollard said the suspects used a variety of aliases to deposit them into numerous bank accounts. The suspects used ATMs and then withdrew the funds as soon as they were posted but before the banks recognized the discrepancy.
“This low-tech yet well-organized effort to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of mailed-in charitable donations — at a time when donations may have been most needed — has been stopped," FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said. "I appreciate the commitment of our investigators, analysts, Cape Coral PD and the Office of Statewide Prosecution for putting these criminals behind bars.”
Arrested Wednesday were Ionut Raducan, 33; Marius Dumitru, 27; Marius Dumitru, also known as Viorel Dumitru, 34; and Panait Dumitru, 32. Each was charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, racketeering, grand theft, unlawful possession of personal identification information, and money laundering
Follow Michael Braun on Twitter @MichaelBraunNP.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Operation Thou Shalt Not Steal: Church theft suspects arrested