SPRING HILL — The first three times, the burglars came up short.
The only real harm to Spring Hill Christian Academy was a few shattered windows and some damage around metal doors that the burglars had tried unsuccessfully to pry open.
But on the fourth visit by burglars in about six weeks, they made off with about $100 in petty cash during a theft from one of the school's offices last month.
"It just seems like crooks are crawling all over," the Rev. Ray Rouse of Spring Hill Christian Academy said this week. "Maybe our alarm system has kept them away in the past. But now they're getting bolder."
At least eight churches in Hernando County have been hit by burglars since November, and the Sheriff's Office has been asking residents for help in finding those responsible. Similar burglaries have taken place in Citrus, Alachua, Lake, Levy, Marion and Sumter counties.
Authorities and church officials said the offenses have occurred mostly at night, generally late Sunday night or early Monday morning after offerings from earlier services have been locked way. In most of the cases, burglars have rummaged through the offices looking for money.
"These are people who have honed the skills that would allow them to access safes and slip into buildings undetected," said Sgt. Donna Black, a spokeswoman for the Hernando Sheriff's Office. "And most churches don't have cameras because they're not usually the targets of thieves."
In Citrus, detectives have been investigating a string of church burglaries over the past seven months. Since July, nearly 20 churches throughout the county have been hit.
Heather Yates, a spokeswoman with the Citrus Sheriff's Office, said investigators think the burglary suspects could be local residents. At least five times, Yates said, deputies have recovered items from church burglaries — safes, checks and other financial documents — in Citrus County.
"They're dumping the safes here for some reason," Yates said. "So we do have suspicions that they live in this county."
Yates wouldn't go into further detail because the cases are still under investigation.
In Hernando County, Northcliffe Baptist Church in Spring Hill has been burglarized twice in the past month, according to the Sheriff's Office
The church reported a burglary to authorities on Monday.
"We had three services" on Sunday, said the Rev. Jerry Waugh. "And they took offerings from all three services. They got all of it."
In the first reported burglary on Jan. 25, Waugh said $311 was stolen from one of the church offices. This time, he said, the burglars made off with substantially more, but he declined to provide an exact figure.
"We just feel like it would encourage them to do the same thing," he said.
To protect the church, Waugh said, the church is upgrading the security system, reminding all staffers about the security procedures in place and asking church members to look out for anyone who seems particularly interested in where the offerings are taken during and after the services.
Waugh said the offerings are usually placed in a safe in a hidden room within the worship center. To find the money, he said, the burglars had to know exactly where they were going.
"These are probably professional guys because of the way they're able to get in and get out in a quick manner," Waugh said. "You can't just open these safes with a crowbar."
But Waugh is hopeful that the thieves will be brought to justice soon. In an e-mail to church members earlier this week, Waugh reminded them that the burglars will have to answer for their crimes — one way or another.
"Nothing can change what happened to us," he said. "But I let them know that God is going to get the last word. …"
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Sheriff's Office or call Crime Stoppers toll free at 1-866-990-8477.
Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6120.