NORRISTOWN — Two Philadelphia men are accused of taking part in 10 overnight burglaries at churches in Montgomery, Bucks and Philadelphia counties — crimes prosecutors described as “reprehensible.”
Gabriel E. Minnick, 21, of the 1800 block of West Ruscombe Street, and Semaj Munir Howard, 20, of the 4500 block of Marple Street, each was charged with multiple counts of burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, criminal trespass, theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property, institutional vandalism and criminal mischief in connection with alleged break-ins that occurred between Feb. 20 and March 17, 2020.
The accused burglars stole precious metals, safes, petty cash, portable church communion kits, silver church communion trays, bottles of wine, poor box donations, televisions and other electronics from 10 churches of various denominations located in Abington, Upper Moreland, Lower Moreland and Cheltenham in Montgomery County, in Lower Southampton and Upper Southampton in Bucks County and in Philadelphia, according to arrest affidavits.
#MontcoPa DA Kevin R. Steele & #Abington & #LowerMoreland police announce arrests of Gabriel Minnick, 21, & Semaj Howard, 20, both of #Philadelphia, for overnight burglaries of 10 churches in #Montco, #Bucks and Philadelphia counties. STORY COMING. Minnick (left) Howard (right) pic.twitter.com/s5CuMsPWCi— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) June 26, 2020
Additionally, the accused burglars caused significant damage to the churches, some of which were historic structures, prosecutors alleged.
“Our churches do an extraordinary amount of good in our communities. To steal from and damage a church is reprehensible. It’s an egregious crime against the entire community,” Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said on Friday.
Montgomery County prosecutors will handle the cases related to the alleged crimes in all three counties.
Investigators linked Minnick and Howard to the burglaries through video surveillance, photographs, cellphone records, pawn shop transactions and the clothing they wore, according to the criminal complaint filed by Abington Township Detective Ryan M. Duntzee and Lower Moreland Detective Holly J. Halota.
#MontcoPa DA Kevin Steele: “Our churches do an extraordinary amount of good in our communities. To steal from and damage a church is reprehensible. It’s an egregious crime against the entire community.”Two men charged with burglarizing 10 churches in #MontcoPa #Bucks & #Philly pic.twitter.com/QbuWKU7pAY— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) June 26, 2020
“The burglaries committed were classic ‘modus operandi’ crimes – a pattern of behavior nearly identical in nature so as to constitute the virtual fingerprint of an actor or actors – known as common plan, scheme or design,” Duntzee and Halota wrote in the criminal complaint.
Churches were targeted in each burglary, entry was forced, typically through windows, and the items stolen were similar in nature, detectives alleged.
Montgomery County churches burglarized included: Elkins Park Presbyterian in Abington; Reformed Presbyterian Church in Abington; St. Michael the Archangel in Abington; Huntingdon Valley Methodist Church in Lower Moreland; and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Cheltenham.
The Bucks County churches that were burglarized included Church of the Wonderful in Lower Southampton and Living Streams Evangelical Church in Upper Southampton.
PROSECUTORS: Accused burglars Gabriel E. Minnick & Semaj M. Howard stole safes, petty cash, portable church communion kits, silver church communion trays, bottles of wine, poor box donations & electronics from 10 churches of various denominations in #MontcoPa #Bucks & #Philly— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) June 26, 2020
Philadelphia churches that were burglarized included the Lehigh Baptist Church, Pennypack Baptist Church and the Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church, according to court papers.
Utilizing video surveillance, the investigation determined there were two burglars wearing distinctive clothing, with one of the actors, subsequently identified as Howard, having a heart-shaped tattoo under his eye and a unique scar on his eyebrow, according to court papers.
During the investigation, authorities recovered a sweatshirt that matched the sweatshirt allegedly worn by Minnick and depicted in video surveillance during a break-in at the Huntingdon Valley Methodist Church, according to court papers.
Gabriel E. Minnick, 21, (Left) & Semaj Munir Howard, 20, (Right) of #Philadelphia were charged with multiple counts of burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary & theft in connection with alleged break-ins at 10 churches in #MontcoPa #Bucks & Phila. between Feb. 20 & March 17, 2020 pic.twitter.com/PqkrQMevo0— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) June 26, 2020
Additionally, a sweatshirt allegedly worn by Howard during a pawn shop transaction on March 17 matched the sweatshirt worn by one of the actors observed on video surveillance committing a March 16 church burglary, according to the criminal complaint.
Authorities said the black bags containing portable communion kits and the communion trays that were recovered have not yet been linked to any particular church.
“Government mandates due to COVID-19 may have contributed to undiscovered church burglaries and/or church officials not having inventoried all of the stolen items,” Duntzee and Halota alleged in the arrest affidavit.
Minnick was arraigned on June 23 before District Court Judge Richard H. Welsh, who set bail at $1 million cash. Howard was arraigned on June 25 before District Court Judge Deborah Lukens, who set bail at $750,000. Both defendants were unable to post bail and were remanded to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.
A preliminary hearing for the men is scheduled for 1 p.m., July 15 before District Court Judge Juanita Price. Prosecutors Scott Frank Frame and Tanner Beck are handling the cases.