ST. PETERSBURG — Burglaries across the city have risen as the economy has sunk.
But police say one brand of burglar has stooped particularly low: They're targeting churches.
The burglars have broken into seven churches in the past six weeks in a small area on the western side of the city.
One church got hit twice.
They've struck mainly after midnight on weekends. They've pried open doors and broken windows. They've stolen cash and electronics. They've trashed offices, chopped down doors and left behind damage — even when they've taken little or nothing.
"It makes you wonder who would do this," said Pastor John Wolfe, 58, of St. Petersburg Seventh-Day Adventist Church on 56th Street N. "As a church, we're trying to help people. We're trying to do the Lord's work," he added. "This is the Lord's money, and we don't have a lot of money."
His church was hit in November. The burglars pried open a door, stole $115 in cash that was accidentally left in a tithing box in the foyer, then broke into and ransacked the church's offices. The security cameras weren't working at the time, but soon will be.
The burglaries have occurred within a 20-block radius in the city's western neighborhoods. The break-ins appear to be moving from the south to the north, and investigators believe they could be the work of the same crew.
The burglars have used a variety of methods to gain access to the buildings. They have pried open doors and smashed windows. In one case, the burglars triggered an alarm and ran off. In another case, the burglars somehow disabled an alarm system.
The first break-in took place on Oct. 25. The latest was sometime Thursday night — the first time a church was hit on a week night.
That's when Trinity United Church of Christ on 49th Street N got hit, police said. No one knows how the burglars got in, but once inside, they chopped down the door to the church office and ransacked it.
They took about $500 in cash and two projectors used in the youth room and for citizenship classes.
They also took the church's keys and opened every door, cabinet and drawer — and kept the keys. It will cost around $5,000 to replace what was taken, repair what was damaged and re-key the entire building.
"We can't afford this," said the Rev. Gaye Bosley-Mitchell, 48.
The failing economy has hit churches hard, too.
Trinity United had to increase its deductible to reduce its insurance premiums. The church, which can't afford a security system, is already operating on a deficit and relying on its endowment.
Police said they're going to start warning the city's churches. The reverend at Trinity United said she wished police had warned local churches about the burglary series much earlier.
"We would have appreciated having some notice of this in advance," she said.
Her congregation will have to pay $5,000 to repair damages.
And yet on Sunday morning, the congregation prayed for the burglars.
"We all understand how bad the economy is," said Bosley-Mitchell. "Churches try to give to those in need.
"We're sorry they had to take by destroying things."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.