Pair accused in church fraud ring cracked by Cape Coral detective arrested in Mexico
Two people sought in connection to a $760,000 theft ring that targeted churches across Southwest Florida and the nation were arrested and awaiting return to the United States, officials say.
Catalin Trandafir and Simona Trandafir were taken into custody in Tijuana, Mexico, on Saturday. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Mexican law enforcement officials coordinated their arrests, according to a news release issued Thursday by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
They remain in the custody of Mexican authorities pending extradition to Florida. Both suspects had been wanted following the May 26 arrests of four other suspects, all believed members of the alleged Romanian nationals' theft ring in Orlando, as part of Operation Thou Shalt Not Steal.
FDLE agents said the ring is charged with stealing more than 1,700 checks from 636 churches, more than half of them in Florida, including Cape Coral and Naples. The total of the checks amounted to more than $760,000.
The thefts began in Lee County in November 2019 and then spread countrywide.
Law enforcement said the suspects bought vehicles, food and clothing with the stolen donations, and they frequently sent high-value wire transfers to Romania.
The FDLE investigation began in December 2020 after Cape Coral Police Department identified 24 victim churches within Lee County.
The investigation determined the ring members traveled to churches — as many as 85 in a day — and stole checks from their mailboxes.
Suspects used aliases to deposit stolen checks into bank accounts. They then used ATMs and then withdrew the funds as soon as they were posted, officials said.
“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," FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen had said.