LONGWOOD, Fla. - Four men are in jail, accused of stealing thousands of dollars from hundreds of churches around Florida. The men, all Romanian nationals, appeared before a judge on Thursday.
Agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) said those arrested were IIonut Raducan, 33; Marius Dumitru, 27; Marius Dumitru, 34; and Panait Dumitru, 32. They were taken into custody in Orange County, where they reside.
"We’re very happy because it was very disturbing at the time," said Pastor Doug Hardt of Markham Woods Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Pastor Hardt said he is glad the people who stole around $6,500 from his church were caught.
Agents said the suspects stole more than $740,000 from 636 churches. The funds were used to buy cars, food, and clothing, some of the money was sent back to Romania.
Pastor Hardt explained, "None of us had any idea that this was such a large-scale operation."
According to investigators, the suspects traveled throughout Florida and the southern United States removing checks from church mailboxes. In Central Florida agents said they stole $1,300 from Debary Orange City Seventh-day Adventist Church, $1,000 from Westview Baptist in Sanford,
$3,000 from Markham Woods Presbyterian Church in Lake Mary, and $6,500 from Markham Woods Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Pastor Hardt said it was Markham Woods Presbyterian Church that alerted them to the alleged thefts, after finding church envelopes torn on the lawn.
"They found them in their yard and had our name on some of the envelopes and some of the checks were still there. Some were missing."
"I was shocked that people would take or steal from a church. I find giving to God as a special thing," said a woman who asked not to be named.
She said she donated $1,500 that was taken from Pastor Hardt’s church.
"I am glad that they are caught because people need to live honest lives with integrity."
Pastor Hardt said the stolen money would have gone towards church activities, the homeless, and youth. He now has a P.O. Box.
Authorities are still searching for Catalin Trandafir, 45, and Simona Trandafir, 39.
"I hope they realize that what they did was wrong and I hope they’re punished accordingly but that they learn from their mistakes."
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