Couple accused of stealing Christmas gifts, setting fire to church


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

“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

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.).