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Wednesday, December 30,2009

Couple accused of stealing Christmas gifts, setting fire to church

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

MODESTO, Calif. — Officers arrested a married couple suspected of breaking into a Modesto church late Tuesday, stealing Christmas gifts intended for needy children and starting a fire, a police spokesman said.

The sanctuary that burned was being used for Sunday services for the past four years as a 5,000-square-foot building was being added to the New Bethany Missionary Baptist Church.

Pastor Charles Evins said his church has been the target for vandals and thieves, and Tuesday night was another in a series of setbacks while the church has been under construction.

"We just pray that it stops," Evins said about the vandalism and the thefts as he stood Wednesday afternoon in the center of the sanctuary gutted by flames.

Officers arrested Melissa Baker, 25, of Hughson, Calif., and Randy McClain, 39, of Modesto on suspicion of arson, burglary, conspiracy to commit a crime, possession of stolen property and violating parole, said Modesto police Sgt. Brian Findlen.

He said Baker and McClain are married, but it was unclear why the husband and wife lived in different cities. Evins said he does not know Baker or McClain.

About 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, officers responded to a silent burglary alarm at the church. Police investigators believe Baker and McClain entered the building through a window.

Findlen said officers spotted Baker walking away from the church carrying wrapped Christmas presents with labels for specific children. Moments later, the officers spotted McClain climbing out of one of the church windows.

As Baker and McClain were taken into custody, the officers could see flames inside the church before an explosion blew out the windows.

Firefighters arrived and put out the blaze. Findlen said it appeared the fire was intentionally set to cover up evidence of the burglary.

Modesto Fire Department firefighters mostly contained structural damage to the temporary sanctuary. It was also being used as a multipurpose room.

Evins was called to the church overnight to examine some of the damage.

"I couldn't believe someone would break into the church and set it on fire," he said.

On Wednesday, only melted plastic and charred chairs and furniture remained inside the sanctuary. Evins said some bibles as old as the 33-year-old church were destroyed by the flames along with some Christmas gifts that were not stolen.

He said church members had gathered gifts for needy families and had given away most of them last week. The remaining gifts were supposed to be handed out Sunday.

Police recovered the stolen gifts, which will be given to the children. Evins said the church will try to replace the burned gifts.

Despite installing a fence, security cameras and an alarm system, the church suffered another significant setback to the completion of its construction.

In June 2008, thieves stole an air conditioner and stripped another for metal. Metal thieves had already struck the church at least twice before.

In December 2007, thieves stole two backflow devices that cost about $20,000 to replace.

"The closer we get to completing the church, something else happens," Evins said. "I just pray that justice prevails with the laws of the land."

Evins doesn't know how much money will be needed to repair the burned building and replace the damaged items. The completion of the new building will most likely be put on hold.

"We're going to continue to press on," Evins said. "My faith is definitely stronger than this."

(c) 2009, The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.).

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