Home / Donations stolen from SWFL churches in nationwide theft ring

Donations stolen from SWFL churches in nationwide theft ring

Reporter: Justin Kase Writer: Derrick Shaw
Published: Updated:

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Cape Coral Police Department held a press conference Wednesday afternoon in Fort Myers to announce the results of a theft-ring bust.

Operation “Thou Shalt Not Steal” targeted the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in church donations throughout the U.S.

Investigators say six suspects stole more than $740,000 from 600 churches and church schools nationwide, including hitting dozens of them in Southwest Florida.

“They would spread the checks between themselves to be deposited into various bank accounts using ATMs,” said Shane Pollard with FDLE. “Once the money posted into the account, they withdrew the funds immediately in cash before the banks realized the checks were actually made payable to the churches and not the suspects.”

The suspects operated out of Orlando, but hit churches in Lee and Collier counties by stealing checks out of church mailboxes. One of the victims was Cape Coral’s Grace Church, where $7,000 was stolen.

Investigators say the suspects used the money to buy clothes, food, vehicles and entertainment.

“It was almost a perfect crime as COVID-19 swept the country,” Pollard said. “Some church members stayed home from in-person church services and mail them their offerings.”

Four suspects are in custody, and investigators are searching for two more — Catalin Trandafir and Simona Trandafir

“The number of churches stolen is more than 700, but I expect that number to increase as we continue to investigate,” Pollard said.

Going to church and donating money are a regular part of Gayle Malvezzi’s life.

“I would usually write a check for four to six weeks or something depending on my mood and my bank account,” said Malvezzi, who attends services at New Hope Church in Cape Coral.

Malvezzi was shocked when she received a call from the church.

“Somebody had stolen the checks, and it just so happened that mine was one of the ones that was stolen,” Malvezzi said.

Reports show New Hope Church in Cape Coral was among those in Southwest Florida hit by the suspects accused of running a theft ring.

“I’m blessed that it wasn’t my last $300,” Malvezzi said. “But for the church, it could have been somebody’s electric bill or food for a month.”

Back when then donations were stolen, that’s exactly what they were being used for.

“It was literally food; it was rent money; it was electric bill paying money; water bill paying money,” said Lead Pastor David Acton of New Hope Church.

It wasn’t only helping the churches stay afloat. Multiple churches told us the money was helping people in their communities make ends meet.

“I assumed it was some kids or maybe some folks in the community that just didn’t know what else to do to make ends meet,” Acton said. “Now that I know it wasn’t that. It was in fact a larger ring of thieves probably from another country, yeah, I’m pretty ticked off.”

Investigators say the thieves sent large amounts of money overseas to Romania. But despite the crippling blow, churches say they’re thankful for the continuing generosity from the community.

“While this was disappointing and discouraging for us, we were still able to keep on mission and keep on focus of our impact in our community,” said Executive Pastor Taylor Foley of Grace Methodist Church.

Churches are also making changes to ensure donations get to the people who need them. Some are replacing mailboxes with one’s that lock, and they’re aiming security cameras at them. Others are forwarding all their mail to a P.O. box, so they can pick it up in person.

Watch the full press conference below or click here.

SWFL churches that fell victim to theft ring

  1. Grace United Methodist Church, 13 SE 21st Place, Cape Coral, Florida
  2. New Hope Baptist Church, 431 Nicholas Parkway, Cape Coral, Florida
  3. Abiding Love Lutheran Church, 3205 Chiquita Blvd. South, Cape Coral, Florida
  4. Providence Christian Church, 701 Mohawk Parkway, Cape Coral, Florida 5. Cape Coral Community Church, 811 Santa Barbara Blvd., Cape Coral, Florida
  5. Messiah Lutheran Church, 2691 Pine Island Road, Cape Coral, Florida
  6. Grace Baptist Church, 1300 Ceitus Terrace, Cape Coral, Florida
  7. First Baptist Church, 4117 Coronado Parkway, Cape Coral, Florida
  8. Cape Baptist Church, 435 SE 10th Terrace, Cape Coral, Florida
  9. Peace Lutheran Church, 15840 McGregor Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida
  10. Crossroads Baptist Church, 1071 Palm Beach Blvd., Fort Myers, Florida
  11. Iona Hope Episcopal Church, 9650 Gladiolus Drive, Fort Myers, Florida
  12. Southwest Florida Baptist Church, 16940 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, Florida
  13. Faith United Methodist Church, 15690 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, Florida
  14. Zion Lutheran Church, 7401 Winkler Road, Fort Myers, Florida
  15. Next Level Church East, 2645 Forum Blvd., Unit # 547, Fort Myers, Florida 17. Beach Baptist Church, 130 Connecticut Street, Fort Myers, Florida
  16. Gateway Trinity Lutheran Church (GTLC), 11381 Gateway Blvd., Fort Myers, Florida
  17. Cypress Lake United Methodist Church, 8570 Cypress Lake Dr, Fort Myers, Florida
  18. Calvary Assembly of god of Fort Myers, 11431 Palm Beach Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida
  19. San Damiano Monastery of St. Clare, 6029 Estero Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida 22. North Shore Alliance Church, 330 W. Martana Ave, Fort Myers, Florida
  20. First Church of the Nazarene, 13545 American Colony Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida
  21. Rosa De Saron AG Church, 13235 Palm Beach Blvd, Fort Myers, Florida