Robbers Strike Churches in Region 8

May 17, 2004 -- Posted at 4:59 p.m. CDT

POPLAR BLUFF -- Thieves have made off with church collection baskets in one Region 8 town, and it's certainly an unwelcome suprise at the Sunday service.  The string of church thefts has left folks in Poplar Bluff wondering why?

Tim McClung works at the First Assembly of God in Poplar Bluff.  His church was vandalized when a thief entered looking for money.  Fortunatly, the church's safe was too heavy to carry, and nothing was stolen.
"It's robbery, it's wrong and it's illegal. In God's eyes, you look at that, and it's sin," said McClung.
The crime spree started on May 2nd, when the Church of God was robbed.  Church officials discovered cash and checks missing.
The next Sunday, May 9th, seven more churches were hit, including the Church of God at 9th & Cedar Street, the Episcopal Church, the Luthern Church, the Second Baptist Church, Temple Baptist Church, First Assembly of God and the New Life Christian Center.

Police received a tip when they arrested Phillip Wayne Evans for cashing a check taken from the Church of God.  And within an hour, police had 51-year-old Gary Wayne Keller in custody.

"He confessed to seven burglaries and gave very detailed description of how he got into the buildings and what he had taken from the buildings and what he had done to dispose of the items," said Detective Greg Brainard.
But why rob a church?
"What he was doing was hoping that the offerings we're still there and all these churches had taken these offerings out and made the deposits," said Det. Brainard.

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church was also robbed on May 9th...the thief walked with Sunday's collection, estimated at $10,000 dollars.  But police officials don't believe that this crime is linked to the others, and are still working the case.

Donna Simoneaux works as the Parish accountant at Sacred Heart Church.  They discovered the money was missing Monday morning.
"We were so suprised! That anyone would take money from a church, and we are a little disappointed in that person," said Simoneaux.

Sacred Heart asked their parishoners to redonate the money that was stolen, but church officials say it will be hard to figure out just how much they lost, because they had not counted the money when it was taken.  Police officials say they are working to solve this crime, but nabbing a theif is always good.

"When something like this happens it's a real encouragment, not to the police department, but to the public also, because they know that we're working on those things," said Det. Brainard.

If you have any information about the May 9th theft from Sacred Heart Church, please call the Poplar Bluff Police Department at (573) 785-5776.