John Burns left his green Dodge Caravan parked outside his Northeast Washington church for just a few minutes while he went inside earlier this year. The windows were rolled up, and the doors were locked. But in those few moments while the deacon was inside Zion Baptist Church of Eastland Gardens, the van was stolen.
The District's car thieves are going to church, brazenly seeking opportunities wherever they can find them -- often trolling parking lots on Sunday mornings to target the vehicles of worshipers attending services. They are quick and sophisticated, police said.
"They're going where the cars are, and they know on Sunday mornings there are a lot of people that are going to be at church," said 7th District Police Commander Joel R. Maupin, adding that the problem has been most acutely felt at churches in pockets of Southeast and Northeast.
"It's easy pickings," the commander said. "And unfortunately, [church-goers] don't do a whole lot to reinforce their cars because they think they should be safe."
Maupin estimated that at least a couple of cars are driven off each week by thieves staking out parking areas near churches in the city.
But police and church members are fighting back.
Such churches as Zion Baptist, on Kenilworth Avenue in a neighborhood popular with juvenile car thieves, have hired security details to protect worshipers' cars.
Police have stepped up patrols in the most hard-hit areas when church attendance is especially high. The enforcement efforts are not limited to church parking lots. Many churches do not have expansive lots, so people attending services park on nearby streets -- which also has drawn thieves' attention.
Officers have been working with churches as well as community groups to deter the crimes. This month, they sponsored an Auto Theft Prevention Family Day at a Boys & Girls Club on Benning Road NE, where they distributed 800 anti-theft devices to drivers and warned them to be vigilant. The devices were donated by American Skyline Insurance Co. and Enterprise Leasing, Maupin said.
Police also have distributed the devices -- which lock to car steering wheels -- at churches and community events, hoping to discourage thieves.
"We want to provide every opportunity for citizens to protect their property," Maupin said. "A lot of times when we find cars stolen, we find that the car did have a Club-like device, but the owner just neglected to use it on that particular occasion."
At Zion Baptist, Burns said his church has paid hundreds of dollars for security and police details during services, Bible study sessions and other meetings.
Five days after Burns's vehicle was stolen, it was found abandoned in a ditch. Extensive damage to the van's front end cost him $1,700 to fix. Now, he said, he's often distracted, worried about the safety of his car, while at church.
"I have a Club and an alarm system, you name it," said Burns, 67. "I don't sit through service all the way; I get up and keep looking. You're nervous. You're like in church and out of church at the same time."