Florida-Based Group Accused of Stealing $740,000 from Churches Across US

On Wednesday, agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) arrested four suspects accused of stealing $740,000 from churches across the U.S., with two suspects still at large. The case is being referred to as "Operation: Thou Shalt Not Steal."

In a news release Wednesday, FDLE officials said that the group of Orlando-based Romanian nationals traveled to different churches — as many as 85 a day — and stole checks from mailboxes.

To evade the authorities, the suspects used various aliases to deposit the stolen checks into multiple bank accounts, and used ATMs to withdraw the funds as soon as they posted. Authorities say that the group not only used the money to buy vehicles, food and clothing, but that they also sent "high-value wire transfers" to Romania. More than 1,500 checks were stolen from 636 churches across the U.S., 355 of which were in Florida.

"This low-tech yet well-organized effort to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of mailed-in charitable donations — at a time when donations may have been most needed— has been stopped," said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen in the release. "I appreciate the commitment of our investigators, analysts, Cape Coral PD and the Office of Statewide Prosecution for putting these criminals behind bars."

The investigation began in December of 2020 when the Cape Coral Police Department identified 24 Lee County churches that had fallen victim to the thefts. The Department of Homeland Security Investigations and the Orange County Sheriff's Office assisted FDLE and Cape Coral PD in the operation.

Those arrested were: Ionut Raducan, 33; Marius Dumitru, 27; Marius Dumitru, 34; and Panait Dumitru, 32. All four suspects are being held in Orange County Jail and are being charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, racketeering, grand theft, unlawful possession of personal identification information and money laundering. Authorities are still looking for Catalin Trandafir and Simona Trandafir.

The two wanted suspects face the same charges as the other four; however, Simona Trandafir faces an additional charge of structuring transactions to evade reporting or registration requirements.

Attorney General Ashley Moody's Office of Statewide Prosecution will prosecute the case, announced the FDLE.

"Churches depend on donations from generous members of the community to operate and serve those in need. It is despicable that this crime ring would exploit the selfless acts of kindness displayed through these donations for selfish greed," said AG Moody in the release. "Thank you, to the law enforcement agencies that worked with my Office of Statewide Prosecution to bring these criminals to justice."

Thief counting cash