LOWNDES CO., AL (WSFA) - Investigators with the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office say they've arrested a fifth person in connection to multiple cases of copper thefts at historic Lowndes County churches. The latest suspect, Wilbert Wright, turned himself in to authorities Tuesday.
Wright joins other suspects including Josie McCall, arrested Friday; Kendrick Mason, arrested Thursday after a brief chase through the woods near his home; and Adam Spann and Nicholas Moore, arrested Wednesday.
It's believed Wright will be the last suspect arrested in connection to the investigation, the sheriff's office said.
Investigators say the suspects targeted several historic, rural churches and left thousands of dollars in damage in their wake. As a result of the damage, a relief fund has been set up by the Lily Missionary Baptist Church in Letochatchee.
Donations can be made at BancorpSouth Bank, which has locations in Hayneville and Fort Deposit.
Six churches have been broken into in the Farmersville and Braggs communities over the past two weeks. For several of the congregations, it's not the first time criminals have set their sights on the place where they worship.
At New Bethel Baptist Church off Highway 21, thieves went under the church and cut copper with bolt cutters, damaging water lines and gas lines and the air conditioning.
Next door at Braggs Christian Church, two air conditioning units were stolen from the back of the church and more than $15,000 worth of damage was left behind. The suspect or suspects crawled through a seven inch space between steel bars that were welded to the doors that lead under the church and all of the copper was stolen. Repairs will impact the sanctuary, which church members recently worked to restore.
"They cut the copper off level with the floor of the church to where when we replace it, we've got to tear up part of our sanctuary now," said church secretary Karla Crook Golson. "They did all this damage for probably not even $50 worth of copper. It's hard to understand why somebody would target a church of all places. They totally wrecked this church, from one end to the other, everything."
In the Farmersville community, the congregation at First Missionary Baptist Church is dealing with their second break-in over the past year. Thieves tore apart the air conditioning unit in the back and ripped copper out from underneath the church. They also broke a window and went inside to steal copper from the heat pump, causing at least $10,000 in damage.
The church just spent $5,000 to redo the air conditioning and heating after being targeted by copper thieves. A big screen TV was also stolen during the first incident.
"It's really and truly devastating. It hurts," said John Thicklin, Chairman of the Deacon Board.
Nearby at Farmersville United Methodist Church, burglars smashed a stained glass window and rummaged through the nearly 140-year-old church looking for things to steal. They destroyed air conditioning and heating units and ripped out the copper and stole all of the copper lines associated with water and gas.
The church was targeted several years ago when all of the electrical wiring was torn out. This time around, there's $14,000 in damage, which could impact its future since it one of the oldest buildings and has the smallest congregation.
"This sort of damage could be the death nail for this church because we just don't have the strength nor the youth or the resources to keep repairing it," said George Styles. We hope that the law enforcement will, this time, be the deterrent because we've had no real way of avoiding this from happening again and again at this church."
The church is trying to avoid falling prey to criminals again by installing non-copper piping.
Temple Gate CME Church and Pine Flat Baptist Church were also broken into and damaged.
Investigators revealed what led to a break in the case.
"One specific vehicle was always identified as being in these areas where these churches were being burglarized and we were able to find out who the owner of that vehicle was and find out who he's dealing with. That led us to the current arrests that we have," said Lt. G.L. Hutson with the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office.
Authorities are working to determine if the suspects could also be connected to a church burglary just across the Lowndes County line in Dallas County and other residential burglaries in the area that have occurred over the past year.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's Agricultural and Rural Crime Unit (ARCU) is assisting in the investigation. Anyone with information is asked to call the ARCU tip line at 1-855-75-CRIME.
Members at the churches impacted in the string of crimes were relieved to learn of the arrests.
"Maybe it will stop them or deter them from ever doing this again and we can get our church fixed back up the way it's supposed to be," Karla Crook Golson said. "It's sickening to see something like this and you try so hard to worship God. But all we can say is, God still loves them and maybe law enforcement can help and get this situated."