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.

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