Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Human Interest

Brazen theft of baby Jesus can't chill Frostproof's Christmas spirit

FROSTPROOF — Saturday night, while the high school band was marching and Santa was waving from a flatbed and his elves were handing out stuffed animals, someone snuck into the town's nativity scene and stole baby Jesus.

A public works employee, walking back to his car from the parade, noticed the empty manger and called his boss.

"We'd like to think it was some kid walking by who picked up the doll, maybe their parents didn't even notice," said public works director James Keene. "But it couldn't be just that because of the donkey."

That would be the "4-foot tall by 6-foot wide realistically painted plywood donkey," as recorded in the Polk County Sheriff's Office report.

More than 1,000 people lined the parade route that night, which followed Scenic Highway U.S. 27, right past the spotlit creche. But no witnesses came forward. The thief left no ransom note or clues.

The Sheriff's Office asked the public for information that might help catch the criminal. Crime stoppers offered a $1,000 reward.

On Thursday, detectives got two anonymous tips and set out to track them down.

And City Council member Diana Biehl found her daughter's old doll and slipped off its pink dress.

• • •

The Department of Justice doesn't keep statistics about Nativity-nappings. But in the last two decades, newspapers have published 353 stories about such crimes.

Figures are pilfered outside city halls and shopping malls, from churches and old folks' front porches. In Massachusetts, a thief left a note: "We have Jesus. We will hang him unless the police leave five cases of Budweiser here Jan. 1." In Oklahoma, a company offered GPS devices so if someone swiped your Jesus, at least you could track him.

People in Frostproof say manger crimes are unprecedented in their tiny town, where everyone knows everyone. "The Friendly City" is home to about 3,000 people and a dozen churches.

"The Christian presence in everybody's life around here is quite strong," said council member Biehl. In the spirit of forgiveness, Biehl doesn't want whoever took the town's doll to go to jail. She just wants the baby back. "Whoever did this needs a serious talking-to," she said.

Frostproof's nativity figures are life-size: three wise men, two shepherds, three camels, two lambs and the proud parents. Town workers carved them from plywood more than 20 years ago and repainted them last fall.

Jesus was the only three-dimensional character, a cloth doll with a plastic head and painted eyes. "I'd be surprised if the whole thing was worth $50," said Keene, whose employees also built the palm-frond stable. "But it isn't about the money. It's about: Why would anyone take Jesus?"

• • •

Five days after the parade, Flat Mary and Joseph were still staring down at the Spanish moss that filled the empty crib.

And detectives still had no suspect.

"We got two leads, which they're checking out right now," Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Carrie Eleazer said Thursday.

A woman directed investigators to a man she said had taken the doll. He was with a friend that night, he said. His alibi checked out.

"Turns out the tip came from a disgruntled girlfriend," said Eleazer.

Another caller said the plastic savior was in a cemetery. Detectives combed all four graveyards around Frostproof, but didn't find the doll — or donkey.

"We have stepped up patrol around the nativity," Eleazer said, in case someone tries to take other figures. And in case the thief returns to the scene of the crime.

• • •

Biehl couldn't bear the stark symbolism: Christ was missing from the Christmas tableau.

She called her daughter, who is 37. Remember that baby doll you used to take everywhere? The one that's still sitting in the rocking chair in the guest room? Of course her daughter remembered Cynthia. And she would be honored to donate her to such a worthy cause.

"I didn't have anything to dress her in, so I just wrapped it in white trash bags," Biehl said.

On Thursday, she laid the replacement Jesus in the manger and called the public works manager. "Can you find some better clothes?"

Keene draped a cranberry tea towel across the toy, but he wasn't sure about this imposter. This baby had a huge head and thick, brown hair. It looked older than a newborn, not so holy.

That night, he asked his wife: Was there a better doll he could borrow? "You can have mine, Daddy," said his 10-year-old daughter, Brana. "Just make sure you bring her back."

So on Friday morning, with the city manager at his side, Keene took the hairy baby out of the manger and set the bald doll in its place. Keene tucked the tea towel around its cloth body, then walked to his truck. "Oh wait," he said. "I better find something to secure it."

By noon, Frostproof's third holy infant seemed to be slumbering peacefully, his tiny wrists zip-tied to the manger.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.

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