TATE COUNTY, MS (abc24.com) - They're locking their doors, bringing in extra security and staying alert. Mississippi pastors have a message for the thieves who've been targeting their churches: you will be caught, it's just a matter of time.
Almost a dozen North Mississippi churches have been burglarized since March. The thieves are still out there, despite the best efforts of cops and church members.
The burglaries started in Marshall County in March. The crooks have now moved into neighboring Tate County. A total of 11 churches have been broken into, seven in Marshall County, four in Tate.
"Every door in the inside and outside of the building was locked," says Dr. Jeffery Elliott, the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Independence, Mississippi.
The church knew crooks were out there.
"We'd heard other churches had been broken into," Elliott tells abc24.com.
So the pastors of Mt. Zion took extra care to lock up. It didn't matter.
Early Monday morning, April 2nd, theirs was the latest church hit in a string of church burglaries in North Mississippi.
"There were drawers opened up, cabinets opened up, anything that was locked, any cabinet drawers that were locked, were forced open," Elliott says.
"There was not a room that was skipped," says James Wilson, the church's minister of students and education.
Every door was pried open with crow bars. The church lost almost $4,000 worth of equipment. Two TV monitors were ripped off a youth room wall and lawn equipment was stolen from a shed on the property.
"We're doing everything we can right now," says Bill Ellis, chief investigator with the Tate County Sheriff's Office. "We've put extra patrols on all the churches in the county."
But deputies have their hands full. Mt. Zion is the fourth church hit in the county in the last few weeks. Investigators believe Tate's church burglaries are related to the ones just down the road in Marshall County. They've even found evidence linking the two.
"It was a safe," says Ellis. "They dumped the safe in a pile of garbage at a county barn, the county maintenance barn."
So far that safe is the only clue investigators have. It's going to take more than that to catch the crooks.
"They're definitely working both counties," says Ellis. "We're needing all the help we can get from the public."
Several of the churches are planning on installing alarm systems and security equipment. If you know anything about these burglaries, call Tate County CrimeStoppers at 1-800-729-2169.