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  1. Hillsborough

Stolen bell returned to Lutz church

Perhaps a guilty conscience played a part in the return of a 116-year-old church bell that was stolen in February from Christ Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Lutz.

Sidney Swindle, longtime member and church historian, said a man called the church in late April and said he had bought the bell and wanted to return it to its rightful owner. He gave no details, but brought the bell to the church, where it took three men to move it into the church building, Swindle said.

"He said when he saw the article in the paper, he decided he wanted to do what was right," Swindle said, referring to the Times article of March 15, which suggested that the heist took a combination of physical strength and moral weakness.

The bell, inscribed "1903 Lakeland Cumberland Presbyterian Church,'' had rung from a church tower in Lakeland until 1924. The bell moved that year with the building, which was cut into pieces and transported on Model T trucks to Osborne and 15th Street in Tampa. That building was eventually demolished and replaced, and the bell was put on display on a platform near the church's entrance. After two more moves and a merger with another church, Christ Cumberland Presbyterian ended up on Holly Lane in Lutz. The bell was affixed to a frame and placed on the church grounds in an out-of-the-way location. Church personnel didn't know it was gone until a bicyclist alerted the custodian about Feb. 24.

The church is just happy to get its bell back and isn't interested in pursuing an arrest, Swindle said, and he told that to the Hillsborough sheriff's detective assigned to the case. He did relate the story the man told church personnel, that he had purchased the bell from someone else. "We don't know whether it's true or not; we're just trying to give the guy the benefit of the doubt,'' he said.

"The guy naturally was pretty nervous about talking with any law enforcement.''

Hillsborough County Sheriff's spokeswoman Crystal Clark stated in an email, "We are glad that the bell has been returned to its rightful owners at the church, however, this is still considered to be an open case, since no arrest has been made.''

Clark noted that several people have been interviewed, including the person who returned the bell, ''but leads have gone cold.''

The office is asking anyone from the public with information on the theft of the bell to come forward by calling (813) 247-8200 or contact Crimestoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS (8477).

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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