The U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrested two Orlando residents, who officials say helped steal over $740,000 from churches nationwide over the past year, in Mexico Saturday, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Catalin Trandafir, 45, and Simona Trandafir, 39, were taken into custody in Tijuana, FDLE spokesperson Gretl Plessinger said. They are still in custody in Mexico pending extradition to Florida.
The two are part of a group of six Orlando residents accused of traveling throughout Florida and across the country to steal donations from 636 churches, including 355 in Florida, and spend the money on cars, entertainment, food and clothes, officials say. The six, all Romanian citizens, also wired large sums of money to Romania, according to the FDLE.
The FDLE considered the Trandafirs at large after officials arrested the four other suspects May 26 and booked them into the Orange County Jail.
The Trandafirs, along with Ionut Raducan, 33, Marius Dumitru, 27, Marius “Viorel” Dumitru, 34, and Panait Dumitru, 32, face charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering, racketeering, grand theft, unlawful possession of personal identification information and money laundering.
According to documents provided by the FDLE, the Cape Coral Police Department found nine local churches and 15 in Fort Myers reported stolen donations as of December.
FDLE investigators found the group traveled to churches on days without services to avoid being seen and specifically targeted churches with accessible mailboxes, records show. The group would drive up to the mailboxes, grab mail and drive away before returning to a Pine Hills home, where they would divide up the checks and deposit them into several different bank accounts.
The six would deposit the stolen checks at ATMs and withdraw the money before it was posted to their accounts, according to the FDLE. Investigators said they used aliases or the names of friends or family members to open new bank accounts.
In stealing the checks, the group also had personal identification and bank account information of the check writers, leading to the unlawful possession charges, records show.
Investigators named specific churches in Alachua, Collier, Duval, Lake, Lee, Leon, Marion, Seminole and Volusia counties that experienced thefts but noted the group stole from over 240 churches across 30 Florida counties.
The six are also accused of stealing from churches in North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi and Illinois, records show. Investigators noted many of the churches may not have been aware they had donations stolen.