Timothy J. Buerk Jr.

A Villa Ridge man was charged Thursday with burglarizing multiple area churches and trading stolen electronics and musical instruments for drugs.

Timothy J. Buerk Jr., 32, was named in a felony complaint on eight counts of second-degree burglary. He is being held at the Franklin County Jail on a $30,000 cash-only bond.

He is accused of stealing a 15-passenger van, electronics and musical instruments used during worship, as well as cash after breaking into the churches through windows and rummaging through offices.

According to Sheriff Steve Pelton, there have been seven reports in two weeks of burglaries at churches in unincorporated areas of the county. There also were three burglaries in St. Clair.

Pelton noted that Buerk has admitted to several of the crimes, but not all of the burglaries.

Buerk was arrested Wednesday morning at a residence in the Paradise Mobile Home Park in St. Clair. Investigators tracked some of the stolen property to an apartment in St. Clair where it was being stored. The van, stolen from Hilltop Advent Christian Church, Pacific, was located at the McDonald’s in St. Clair.

Authorities allege Buerk traded stolen items for methamphetamines.

Pelton explained that Buerk forced his way in through windows and doors, and targeted daily offerings and musical equipment, and other items that could possibly be pawned or traded.

Buerk also has warrants for his arrest for felony stealing, trespassing, assault, possession of drug paraphernalia and shoplifting.

Two St. Clair area men and one woman also were arrested at the Paradise Mobile Home Park residence, but charges have not been filed against them.

Pelton noted about half of the stolen items have been recovered. He estimates that cash and property stolen from the churches is valued at $20,000.

“We will do our best to recover more missing property,” he said.

Pelton thanked St. Clair police and other agencies that assisted with the investigation.

Churches Burglarized

In addition to Hilltop Advent Christian Church, other churches in the county broken into were St. Clair Christian Church; Canaan Land Ministries, near St. Clair; Franklin County Baptist Association, south of Union; Bethel Baptist Church, near St. Clair; First Baptist Church of Gray Summit; and Virginia Mines Baptist Church, near Lonedell.

“The investigators and deputies did a fantastic job,” Pelton said. “I commend them for their work.

“Once we figured out there was a pattern, there was more information to go on,” he added.

Pelton said rural churches are targeted for several reasons.

“With a lot of rural churches there is not always someone there during the week,” he said. “They need to take added precautions.”

Pelton noted that county residents have been helpful in reporting suspicious activity.

“This is the third-largest county in the state,” he said. “It is important that the people keep their eyes on the church and report anything suspicious in the area.

“The citizens have been great in doing that,” Pelton said.

He suggests small, rural churches should invest in alarms and surveillance equipment to safeguard against thefts.

Pelton said cash should be secured in a locked area of the church as another barrier from theft if there is a break-in.

St. Clair Churches

In St. Clair, the Methodist Church, First Baptist Church and Holy Trinity Church all were broken into and items were stolen, according to St. Clair Police Chief Bill Hammack.

During the thefts, the offices were ransacked and electronics, cash and other items were stolen.

“People who burglarize places are looking for an easy target,” Hammack said. “I recommend anybody who has a business with valuables have an alarm system.”

He explained that an audible alarm that alerts police is a deterrent to crime, and surveillance cameras help to solve crimes.