Thieves strike Plant City Church three times during Irma recovery

Published Sep. 15, 2017

PLANT CITY — Authorities say a group of thieves struck First Baptist Church Midway three times and St. Clement Catholic Church at least once in the days following Hurricane Irma.

First Baptist Church Midway was first hit between Monday evening and Tuesday morning while much of the city was still in the dark. Thieves stole snacks and a donation box with $100 in cash as well as keys, a computer, an iPad and a hard drive with more than 10 years of the pastor's sermons and notes.

On Wednesday, the thieves returned and stole the church van as well as a television and other items.

Thanks to a tip, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputy spotted the van driving by and arrested the driver, Miguel Zavala, 18. Inside, authorities found items from the church and from St. Clement's, where an estimated $1,000 in materials were stolen from trailers outside the church, authorities said.

Zavala was believed to have two accomplices, authorities said. The investigation is underway.

"Three times they hit us this week," said Pastor Mike Rippy of First Baptist Church Midway. "They came back and robbed us with our own van."

The church still had no power on Friday.

The Sheriff's Office charged Zavala with grand theft of a motor vehicle and burglary of an unoccupied dwelling during a state of emergency. Additional charges were filed by Plant City police — three counts each of criminal mischief to a place of worship and burglary of an unoccupied structure during a state of emergency.