Plumber's find possibly tied to 2014 Texas megachurch theft
HOUSTON (AP) — For more than seven years, no one has known what happened to $600,000 in checks and cash that was stolen from a safe at Pastor Joel Osteen's Houston megachurch, which has one of the largest congregations in the country.
Now, there's a possible plot twist in the case: The money might never have left the church and a plumber could have helped solve the mystery.
Houston police are investigating whether cash and checks discovered by a plumber during repair work that was being done at Lakewood Church is connected to the money that was stolen in 2014.
The revived investigation comes after a plumber on Thursday called "The Morning Bullpen with George, Mo & Erik on 100.3 The Bull" during a segment on the Houston radio station in which people were asked to talk about the most unusual things of value they had ever found.
Some callers talked about finding $100 or a ring before the plumber went on the air with his story of what he found while repairing a leaky toilet at the church about four weeks ago.
"I went to go remove the toilet and I moved some insulation away and about 500 envelopes fell out of the wall. I was like 'oh wow.' I got my flashlight, shined up in there," the plumber said in audio provided by the Houston radio station.
The plumber, who only identified himself as Justin, told the radio program he thought the envelopes full of money were connected to the 2014 theft and immediately told the church's maintenance supervisor, who then contacted police. KPRC-TV first reported the plumber's story to the radio station.
George Lindsey, one of the show's hosts, called the plumber's story "the most out there, is this real kind of moment that we've ever had as part of our show."
"It really seemed like this is a movie. This is a movie plot. This is not something that happens in everyday life. We were just absolutely blown away by it," Lindsey said. "You speculate. What is this? What happened? Why didn't somebody come back and get this money? What's it doing in a wall? Why didn't somebody discover it before now?"
Lakewood Church did not confirm the plumber's account of what he found.
In a statement, Lakewood Church said an undisclosed amount of cash and checks were recently found during repair work but did not offer additional details about the discovery or whether it could be tied to the missing $600,000.
"Lakewood immediately notified the Houston Police Department and is assisting them with their investigation. Lakewood has no further comment at this time," the church said in its brief statement.
In a statement Friday, Houston police said officers were called to the church on Nov. 10 after cash, checks and money orders were found inside a wall.
While the investigation continues, evidence from checks that were found suggests the money discovered in the wall is connected to the 2014 theft, police said.
The undisclosed amount of money found in the wall was inventoried and "left in the custody of Lakewood Church since it was property found on its premises," police said.
In March 2014, the church had reported the theft of $200,000 in cash and $400,000 in checks. The church had reported that the money and checks taken, as well as some envelopes with written credit card information, were limited to funds given during Saturday and Sunday services days before.
The church had said the stolen funds were fully insured.
Shortly after the burglary, a $25,000 reward was offered for information on solving the theft. No arrests were made in the case.
Lindsey said the plumber should get some sort of reward for what he found.
About 43,500 people attend weekly services at Lakewood, making it the largest megachurch in the U.S., according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Osteen's televised sermons reach about 100 countries.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70
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