A group of six Florida residents allegedly worked together to steal more than $740,000 worth of donations from hundreds of churches nationwide, a portion of which they used on cars, food and clothing for themselves.
The suspects also sent large sums of money back to their native Romania, according to a press release from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. They were identified Ionut Raducan, 33, Marius Dumitru, 28, Marius Dumitru, 34, and Panait Dumitru, 32, who are all in custody. The other two, Catalin Trandafir, 45, Simona Trandafir, 39, remained at large as of Thursday, police said.
They are each facing charges including conspiracy to commit racketeering, grand theft and money laundering.
“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,” Department Commissioner Rick Swearingen said in a statement.Top row, left to right: Marius Dumitru, Marius Dumitru, Catalin Trandafir. Bottom row, left to right: Ionut Raducan, Panait Dumitru, Simona Trandafir
An investigation into the widespread scheme was initially launched back in December, when officers with the Cape Coral Police Department determined 24 churches in Lee County alone were targeted by the thieves. From there, authorities expanded the probe beyond local jurisdictions and ultimately learned more than 1,500 checks were stolen from 636 churches across the country, including 355 in just Florida.
The six Romanian citizens operated out of Orlando and traveled around the country in search of targets, sometimes stealing from as many as 85 churches a day. They then used different pseudonyms to deposit the stolen checks into multiple bank accounts and withdraw the money before banks could flag the charges, according to a release.
“Churches depend on donations from generous members of the community to operate and serve those in need,” state Attorney General Ashley Moody said in a statement.
“It is despicable that this crime ring would exploit the selfless acts of kindness displayed through these donations for selfish greed.”