PLANT CITY — Pastor David Delph walked into the First Presbyterian Church Tuesday morning and got some startling news.
The Plant City Police Department found and returned 65 years worth of church records that were stolen in September.
"We're half-shocked and pretty amazed by it," he said. "It's a miracle and just in time for Christmas."
The records, which were written in the church's leather-bound book of registers, were stored in a safe in the accounting office.
Walter Rahming Jr. confessed to thinking the building was a home when he broke into the office and stole the safe, Plant City police said.
Only the records were inside the unlocked safe to protect them from fire or flood, Delph explained.
"He saw that the records were fairly old and probably didn't have any value on the street," police Sgt. James Shultz said.
Rahming kept the records with the intention of returning them in some way that he wouldn't be caught, Shultz said.
Right after the theft, the church implored the thief to return the records, putting out a box and a sign: "Please return the church record book in this box. No questions asked. Thank you."
It is unclear if Rahming ever saw the box or sign.
Delph said the book's return was right on time. First Presbyterian was planning to buy a new book for the church's minutes, and members had started to pull together historical documents to recreate the first one.
The book of registers holds the membership rolls of the 125-year-old church — such things as births, new members, departing members and deaths since the 1940s.
"It's a wonderful Christmas blessing. We're so thankful he didn't throw them away," Delph said.
Shultz said there were several robberies in the area, and the investigation into them focused on a list of suspects two weeks ago. Rahming's name made the list but he was a transient, so it took time to find him.
Police arrested him Monday. They said he led them to the records inside a house where he had lived on W Alsobrook Street.
Rahming, 52, of Plant City, was charged with grand theft, burglary of an unoccupied structure, giving false information to a pawn broker and dealing in stolen property.
Shultz said the final two charges are for a stolen television set from a separate incident that Rahming pawned recently.
He was being held in the Hillsborough County jail Tuesday on $8,000 bail.
"We'll be praying for the fellow who took them," Delph said.
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.