The weekend of Jan. 8 was a rough one at New Creation Church in Silver Spring. Someone broke in and stole 40,000 pennies, many donated by children who wanted to give them to the needy. Later, an intruder attacked a pastor in the basement, punching him in the face before fleeing.
From the start, Montgomery County detectives thought they were dealing with the same suspect. As of Tuesday they still did, even though the case isn’t as sewn up as they would like it to be.
Police announced the arrest of Noe Guillen-Velasquez, 22, of Silver Spring. They said he assaulted the pastor. He was being held Tuesday on $50,000 bond.
In its own way, the crime was a big deal. People who heard about it were stunned. Here were kids in a tiny congregation — 50 active members — collecting pennies and dropping them into the water cooler jug during services, only to have someone break in and haul the jug away.
“It just really ticked me off,” said Verlin Gingerich, a 70-year-old farmer and rancher in Idaho who read about the crime online. “I thought, ‘Okay, I can help them out a little.’ ”
So he mailed the church a check for $100.
The church received nearly $4,500 in donations — in the form of checks and pennies, said Ella Redfield, a pastor at the church. They used about $1,000 of it to install an alarm system and a new door. With the kids still pitching in, the penny count now stands at 250,000. The church will soon convert the pennies to checks so that the money can be donated, along with the additional check donations, to social service organizations that work with children.
“God has a way of taking something ugly and using that ugly moment and transforming it into something great, something beautiful,” she added.
After the crimes, detectives zeroed in on Guillen-Velasquez fairly quickly, according to court papers. They found one penny on the ground near a side door and, continuing away from the church, found another near a fence that separates the church driveway from the back yard of a condemned house, police said.
In that house, they found pennies on the floor. They also found Guillen-Velasquez, determined that he lived there and arrested him for trespassing, according to court records.
The key physical evidence came in the preacher attack: A black knit hat was left by the assailant. When DNA evidence was analyzed, it matched Guillen-Velasquez. He admitted that he was in the church at the time of the assault, police said, but denied swiping the pennies.
Detectives found a water cooler jug in a dumpster outside the church. It had been smashed open, but it didn’t yield fingerprints or DNA evidence, said Cpl. Mike Burgess, a Montgomery detective.
Burgess said he will discuss with prosecutors whether to file other charges against Guillen-Velasquez.
Guillen-Velasquez could not be reached for comment. Court records do not show whether he has an attorney in the assault case.
According to court records, Guillen-Velasquez’s father, Victor Guillen, obtained a restraining order against him in 2009, and Guillen-Velasquez moved out of the house.
“Before, he was nice,” Victor Guillen said Tuesday, adding that his son fell in with the wrong crowd. “He changed a lot. Before, he would listen.”
Victor Guillen said his son recently moved back in with him, and detectives showed up at 6 a.m. on a recent day to arrest him. They told Victor Guillen that his son was suspected in the church break-in and the stealing of the pennies, Guillen said.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” he said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.