As the choir at was singing and praying at a recent Sunday service, a visitor crept through the halls—stealing their purses and wallets from behind locked doors and cabinets.
But this wasn't the first time the church was targeted during an hour of worship: just one month earlier, a thief had stolen wallets, cash and keys from locked cabinets and drawers in the staff offices.
"You just feel helpless because, wait, what more can we do?" said Kellie Burns Peterson, the church's director of office administration and communication.
WUSA 9's Peggy Fox first reported that at least 10 churches all over suburban Virginia and Maryland have been hit since September. Law enforcement agencies from Loudoun County, Fairfax and Maryland have been working together and focusing on a particular suspect, said Lt. John Trace, of the Sully District Police Station. Detectives believe that the suspect has since fled the area to Ohio.
For CUMC, the inconvenience goes beyond losing cash and replacing credit cards. The church had to pay $4,500 to replace all the locks on the building. "That's something we can ill-afford," Peterson added. Now, they have ushers patrolling the halls and also have someone sitting out front by the desk. That's a concern because this may not look very welcoming to visitors, but it is a necessity after being targeted twice.
The first larceny occurred on Oct. 23rd, between 9:30 a.m. and noon. A few small things were taken from the desks in staff offices. The staff did not immediately notice what had happened, but filed a police report when they did. The church was again targeted on Nov. 27th, between 9:30 a.m. and 10:40 p.m. Between nine and eleven purses were stolen that time.
The thief is described from other incidents as a heavyset white woman with brown hair, about 5'5" and a pear-shaped build. Church leaders pointed out to the police that the same type of incident had occurred across jurisdictions. That strategy may have given the thief an initial advantage, as police did not immediately realize this may have been a serial situation.
Whoever they are, "they're not only not nice, they're clever," Peterson said.
Updated the afternoon of 12/15 with additional information.