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No sacred sanctuary: Church thefts rattle worshippers

Residents were shocked when they heard someone had walked into a Grand Forks church Sunday morning to pickpocket worshippers' coats. But it wasn't the first time it had happened in the city. The reported theft at St. Mark's Lutheran Church was si...

The Rev. Daniel Voth recounts how a perpetrator went through coat pockets last spring at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Grand Forks during Sunday worship services. Another church in the same neighborhood, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, had a similar experience on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Residents were shocked when they heard someone had walked into a Grand Forks church Sunday morning to pickpocket worshippers' coats.

But it wasn't the first time it had happened in the city. The reported theft at St. Mark's Lutheran Church was similar to the one caught on camera last spring at Immanuel Lutheran Church, about five blocks away.

"As they are walking by, they are tapping on all of the coats to see if anything is in there," the Rev. Daniel Voth said of video showing the culprit walking down Immanuel's hallway.

Places like churches can be easily accessed by perpetrators, Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said. Calling them "crimes of opportunity," Zimmel said thieves sometimes look to commit crimes that are quick to pull off with a low risk of being caught.

That includes walking up to vehicles and pulling on the door handle to see if they are open, but others get more creative when they can't find unlocked cars.


Zimmel compared the church thefts to a report of thefts involving suspects going through gym lockers and looking for vehicle keys. Even if the car is locked, a person needs keys to get back into a vehicle. If the keys are in a locker that is not locked, a suspect can grab the keys and press the key fob until the matching car activates.

"It's a different day and age we live in right now," Zimmel said. "There are no places that are sacred sanctuaries."

It was the first time Immanuel had been targeted by a thief, who made off with at least a phone, Voth said. As a result the church installed a locking system that opens at its discretion. The church is considering further security measures, including having a person watch the halls.

Voth also visited other churches to warn them of the incident. Sure enough, someone went through several pockets that spring at Grace Baptist Church, which is across the street north of St. Mark's.

The perpetrator entered Peggy Zavoral's car, looking through the East Grand Forks resident's mail. The suspect took a phone belonging to Zavoral's husband, a key fob, house keys and a Bible belonging to her late father, she said.

"That was a priceless item that they took from me," she said of the Bible.

The church now has people walking through the halls to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

The most recent of church thefts happened Sunday, when a Caucasian woman in her mid-30s went into St. Mark's coat room to pull out "a couple of remote starters," according to a Facebook post by the Grand Forks Police Department. The suspect opened at least one vehicle in the church's parking lot and took several items.


The woman in that case is described as being heavyset with reddish-brown hair. She was driving a red vehicle, according to the post.

Congregations across the country are trying to answer questions about how to stay open to all while maintaining security to protect parishioners, especially after several church shootings in recent years, Voth said. He noted the November shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed 26 people and injured 21.

"Know that churches are thinking about this stuff and are trying to figure out solutions," he said.

St. Mark's plans to add security measures, including cameras and an attendant to watch coats, the Rev. Deborah Hanson told Forum News Service.

Zavoral and Voth warned residents not to leave valuable items, including keys, in their coat pockets.

Zimmel advised residents and businesses to consider ways to make it harder for thieves to commit crimes. People can sign up at grandforksgov.com/government/police for a security assessment called crime prevention through environmental design. That allows officers to look through a property to find ways to improve security.

"What prevents it? A lock on a locker," Zimmel said. "What prevents it at a church? Maybe it's a coat check area."

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