Two Baltimore men have been arrested in connection with break-ins and vandalism at 20 Protestant churches in the Wheaton-Glenmont-Silver Spring area since January, Montgomery County police said yesterday.
The string of crimes involved the theft of "several hundred thousand dollars" worth of office and electronic equipment, police said.
Officers with the Special Assignment Team at the Wheaton-Glenmont district station arrested Wesley A. Brown, 55, and Robert B. Carroll, 34, about 1 a.m. Monday after a plainclothes detective caught the pair in the stairwell of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration on New Hampshire Avenue, said Sgt. Drew Tracy, team supervisor.
Montgomery police have charged the men with burglary in connection with Monday's break-in. However, Brown, who was released on $20,000 bail, was arrested again yesterday after a police search of the suspects' homes turned up television sets, computers, microwave ovens and telephones allegedly stolen from churches, investigator Cathy Stavely said.
Carroll is being held in lieu of $10,000 bond at the county jail, officials said.
Based on the items recovered from the suspects' homes, Stavely said, police plan to file additional burglary charges against the two men in connection with the June 25 break-in at Liberty Grove United Methodist Church and the Jan. 9 burglary at Colesville Presbyterian Church.
In addition to the 20 Montgomery County break-ins, Stavely said the suspects may be responsible for at least 11 other church burglaries: six in Baltimore County, two in Howard County and three in the Laurel area of Prince George's County.
Much of the stolen stereo and electronic equipment may have been sold at the Patapsco Flea Market in Baltimore County near Brown's home, Tracy said.
Police said the suspects burglarized churches that were "easy targets," those near major roads, in dimly lit areas and without visible alarm systems.
Three of the churches were burglarized twice by intruders, who entered the buildings between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. after smashing a window or door, police said. Tracy said sometimes one or two churches a week were targeted by burglars.
"They would spend a long time in the churches," Tracy said. "At one church, they ate ice-cream sandwiches and drank two liters of soda."
"It was really a mess," said associate pastor Richard P. Bowman of Liberty Grove United Methodist Church. He said the church's computer equipment was seriously damaged after vandals sprayed fire extinguishers and dumped a copying machine chemical during the June 25 break-in.
Parishioners "felt violated by the burglary," Bowman said. "It's a sad commentary on our society. It's just senseless vandalism."
Lin Wallberg, music minister at Colesville Baptist Church, said burglars "smashed out windows and broke down doors" to steal about $3,000 worth of stereo equipment, videocassettes and desk ornaments from that church in June. "It cost us $300 just to clean up the robes they sprayed with yellow dust from fire extinguishers," Wallberg said.
About $30,000 in newly installed electronic equipment was stolen from People's Community Church on Norwood Road, Tracy said.
Authorities began in late May to stake out the parking lots of 33 Wheaton area churches with 11 undercover detectives, Tracy said. Although police had "three close calls" before Monday morning's arrests, Tracy said, it was "just a matter of time. We knew we had to catch them in the act."